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The Rose of Galar

Chapter Text

In Postwick, there is a house that is haunted.

Nobody has lived there for many years now - at least, this is what the children whisper to each during sleepovers, swathed in blankets and with a torch to their chins.

Once, there had been a family who, like many of the other families around them, tended to crops and herded wooloo for a living. Once, there had been a boy who dreamt of leaving his hometown to become a champion, as so many did.

Once, there was a boy who did not return home.

There is a small cottage in Postwick, built right by the edge of the Slumbering Weald, that is haunted. Not by polteageists or litwicks, or even the small fairy types that sometimes clamber out of the mushrooms and trees in the Slumbering Weald. Sometimes at night, you can see a light shining from the windows, and the silhouette of a boy pacing a room.

The adults will not say anything if asked, only hush children and remind them to listen to them. That there are far more dangerous pokemon in the world than wooloos and rookidees. That the shining arenas on their televisions are just that, a performance, and to not dream of fairy godfathers who will visit with a sponsorship letter. That death is as much a part of being a trainer as winning and losing is - and no, they will not be getting a charmander on their birthdays.

Tonight though, there is no child wandering around its dusty rooms. For the first time in years, smoke creeps out of the cottage's chimney.

 

Leon does not recognise the sender's number when the text comes in. Its message is simple, but effective.

He died because of you.

His rotom tells him that the number was registered only a few hours before, and that there are no social media accounts linked to it.

Leon, undefeated champion of the Galar region for some sixteen years and greatest trainer of all of Galar, continues to make small talk at the party he is in for another ten minutes even though his handler is nowhere in sight (a yamper, a well-trained yamper is all he is) before making his excuses to leave - a sandstorm in the Wild Area which he needs to train in, they all understand. He almost runs to his penthouse apartment but forces himself to take deep even breaths the whole walk back. He does not even bother turning on the lights after he slams the front door shut. In the dark he hangs up his cloak and puts on a black jacket, the one with the wide hood he uses when he needs to go incognito. He opens the window and thumbs open the pokeball.

Leon climbs on his charizard and flies home.

Chapter Text

When Hop wakes in the morning, he finds his eyes and cheeks crusted up with dried-up tears, but he can't remember what he had dreamt. Something to do with light, red and purple. And screaming. 

He stretches in his bed and hits his head against the headboard with a loud thump. He keeps meaning to change his bed but he has never had the time to - there has always been something to do, an additional job at one of the nearby farms, an errand that Magnolia wants him to run and - 

Shit. Sadness crashes over his thoughts like a wave and he can only emerge spluttering from the sudden shock of the memory. He keeps forgetting and it does not get any easier each time. 

There is something else he is forgetting, but it's been so long since he's had a lazy day like this - he finally had his schedule cleared and he intends to enjoy it. The throbbing of his head has finally faded, and even though he has to slant himself diagonally on the mattress and let his legs hang off the side of the bed to be properly comfortable, he is happy to lie in the bed and watch the dust motes float in the dawn light. He thinks about heading downstairs to make something for his nan. Pancakes or something, as a treat. 

He reaches for his rotom phone by his pillow, where he'd dropped it the night before just as he'd fallen asleep. Its weak buzz is muffled by his sheets. 

Breakfast with Gloria - the alarm reads. He is already ten minutes late. 

 

"Hey," he says as he raps a hand against the kitchen door, only slightly out of breath. The front door had been left open so he had taken it as an invitation to let himself in. The whole house has a sharp piney smell that reminds him of roselia sap, which mingles pleasantly with the sweet smell of milk and honey. 

"Hey," she replies, without turning around, busy slicing a handful of berries. Casual, as though he walks into her kitchen every week. Somehow, she sounds like the girl he remembers, and a complete stranger at the same time. "Pecha still your favourite?" 

I can't believe you remember, he wants to say, but his mouth cannot seem to form the words. "Yup," he replies instead while she pours the cut fruit into the oats and stirs the whole pot, licking the juice off her fingers absently as she does. 

The sun slants golden light through the windows and a knot loops around his throat. It's ridiculous, it has been over six years at this point, a good part of his life really, and it's not like his nan doesn't cook him porridge at least thrice a week. But there is something about being back in this kitchen with the morning sun streaming in, seating himself on the faded wooden chairs - there are still five of them, one they bought just for him so he could join for family meals even when Victor's pa was home - the wall that he and Victor used to mark their heights still has the pencil scuff marks there. 

Gloria finally turns and places a steaming hot bowl in front of him. "It's a lot," she says, and he knows she is not talking about the food. Like her voice, she is like the girl he remembers, and somehow not at the same time. She is has grown a little taller, he supposes - it is hard to tell now that he’s taller than her - but her face has lost the roundness it had as a child. There’s a wetness in her eyes before she turns back to the stove to dole out another portion for herself. Hop swallows a spoonful of the porridge and finds that it tastes like his childhood. Is it possible to cry because of a mouthful of food?

"Your hair looks good," he says when he can finally speak. Gloria had always been vain about her hair. He'd seen the amount of product she used to use to get the artfully casual bob when they were teens. It is cropped short now, and the oversized red shirt she wears makes him think of Victor.

"I got tired of fussing with it," she says, slowly running a hand through the brown strands. She seats herself opposite him and doesn't touch her food, just flits her eyes between her bowl and his face.  

"And how have you been?" he asks. It takes him three tries to form that sentence. There are so many other questions clamouring in his throat, like where have you been, how long are you staying, where are your parents, why are you back? The years seem to sit between the two of them while she picks up her spoon and scrapes at the bowl. 

"Alright," she says. "I just got in at the Wyndon port early yesterday morning - I can't believe it has aport now - and took the train down. Spent the whole night cleaning the place so I could go five minutes without sneezing my nose off."

"You did a good job," Hop says, meaning it. There isn't a speck of dust anywhere. 

"I think there were kids sneaking in here while we were away." She stirs her spoon in her oats, pointedly not looking at him. 

He coughs. "That would be me," he admits. 

She frowns as she looks up and takes in his nervous expression. He remembers how he and Victor used to tease her when they were on their own but Gloria had always had a way of intimidating him - either with sharp words or by punching harder. He thinks about how heavy her silence had been until the DM he got on his Flashgram the last week - and even then it had been nothing but polite, letting him know that she would be back in town for a bit and inviting him over for breakfast. He had spent hours after wondering whether to say yes, or no, or just pretend he had never seen the message. He wonders if she blames him too. 

Then she cracks a smile for the first time and all the tension falls away. "Well, good. Because all the footprints in the dust just showed someone kept breaking in the window to sit around our old room and I would be really weirded out if it had been a complete stranger." 

He flushes slightly though he can't help but smile a bit as well. The expression stretches muscles on his face that almost hurt to use. 

"So, Hop." She's smiling still, a small one but still there. "What are you up to, these days?" 

He shrugs. "I help Sonia out sometimes - she's been taking over more and more of Magnolia's research at the lab. There've been new Dynamax spots popping up, and we generally have to check them out before you can build anything in the area, so I'm usually flying all over the place. I do some odd jobs on the side too - construction work mostly." 

"That'll explain the muscles,” she says lightly.  

For a split second, Hop feels like he is split between two worlds. In another time, if his childhood had not been so marked by failure and tragedy he would lift his arms and show off his muscles with a laugh. Flirt a little, because while he and Gloria might have known each other since they were in diapers, he isn't blind to the fact that she's grown up pretty. 

But now he can only think of how Victor should be in the chair next to his. He wonders how Victor would have looked grown-up, if he would have grown much taller than his sister or not, if he would have kept his hair cropped or grown it out the way Hop has now, or - 

"And where have you been, Gloria?" he asks, sounding far more formal than he means to. She starts a little at the question and moves a finger to her hair as though to twirl it, the same gesture that Sonia always does when she is nervous or thinking hard about something, but only to realise too late she doesn't have enough hair to twirl anymore. Her hand comes back down on the table empty and she doesn't look at him while she answers.

"Away. My mother wanted to go as far as she could from the place, of course. After." Her metal spoon scrapes against the ceramic bowl, filling the room with a sound that makes him want to clamp his palms to his ears, but she does not flinch. "We went to Unova first. And then Kalos, and then Hoenn. She liked the hot springs in Lavaridge so we stayed there. I finished school. Helped out at a lab at some point, but realised I missed battling." 

"You're a trainer now?" Hop is almost envious. He takes the family scorbunny out for walks, but Scotch is more pet than fighting machine. He still watches Lee's battles of course, and can name all the strategies used in the last five years’ worth of championships in his sleep, but it's like playing a game now, distant things he theorises in his free time. He doesn't think of himself as a trainer, let alone a potential league challenger anymore. 

"Not much of one, since they only let me bring my magikarp back here," she says with a sour expression so familiar he sees the child he grew up with. "I was always too busy to finish the gym circuit, but yeah, I did some battling."

"You still have your magikarp?" Hop exclaims. Gloria had named him - rather pretentiously, he'd thought back then - Seriyu, after some legend in the old Imperial texts she'd been reading at the time. 

"Still do. I'll say that he's excited to be back, but I haven't let him out yet." She looks over at the huge pot over the stove. 

"I keep getting my portions wrong," she says. "I keep forgetting that the rest of my team is in storage and just keep making too much, you should have seen the mess I made last night. But I think Leon should be coming by any minute now, and - " 

"Lee's coming?" Hop repeats. There's a pounding between his ears - Lee never comes back to Postwick, not since - well, not since That Incident. His brother sends photos of his pokemon, and replies all his texts (short curt polite replies, never anything more) and they sometimes have odd tense meals together that are more silence than conversation when they find themselves in the same city at the same time. But he's always believed that Lee blames him as well, which would explain why he never comes back and their mother is the one to clean the dust off his snapback collection every week. 

Gloria lets her spoon fall into her untouched bowl of porridge with a clatter. "Yeah," she says. "I guilted him into paying a visit." 

There is a loud thud from outside, and a reverberation that makes the cutlery on the table shake.

Hop knows it is Lee before he hears Alexander's roar. Again, he feels that strange split - one Hop running out of the house to greet his brother, and him now, in this dimension, unable to get up from the table. 

There are heavy steps at the front door, and Lee walks into the kitchen.

He remembers how his brother would stride through that door to pick him up after he'd stayed too late playing with Victor. How it always felt that his big brother always took up the whole room. 

He finds that he is standing to face his brother but he doesn’t remember getting up. They are the same height now, and yet, his brother seems to have shrunk.

"Lee," he says without thinking, because that is what he always says when he meets his brother. There is surprise in Leon's face, which flashes into something darker. 

Hop's parents had insisted he go for therapy for years, and every therapist he went to spent many session insisting that his brother did not hate him. It is a difficult thing to remember in these moments. 

"Hop," Leon greets coolly. He doesn’t quite meet his eyes. "Are you in on this too?" 

Hop frowns. "What are you - in on what - ?" 

"I was the one who texted you," Gloria says, her voice very cold. Her chair scrapes against the kitchen floor as she gets up. "Hello Lee. Long time no see." 

Lee raised his eyebrows, and despite how mild his manner is, Hop can see the vein throbbing in his forehead, which only happens when he is either angry or upset. 

"I assume from the text that you weren't looking for a courtesy call," he said.

"What text?" Hop asks. 

He catches the phone that Gloria tosses to him as she crosses the room to Lee. It is an old design, not built for rotoms. 

He died because of you. 

The horror and guilt returns so quickly he feels like he has been punched. He thinks of the morning's dream, and screaming. "Gloria, I get that you're grieving - we all are- but that's not - it was an accident - " 

The word accident is one people have always used around him, and it still feels wrong in his mouth. After months of sleeping for more than sixteen hours a day, he started dragging himself out of bed and actually having conversations with people and pretending to not see the relief and pity on their faces. He has mouthed the words they used, but he knows if there is anyone to blame, it is him. 

"Leon wouldn't have come unless he felt guilty," Gloria says before he can try to explain. She comes up to stand right in front of Lee, who has his arms crossed against his chest. She doesn't even come up against his shoulders. The vein in Lee's forehead throbbing. "This is the first time in years you've even set foot in Postwick - you know what you're running away from." 

"You're upset," Lee says slowly. "I get it. You've been away a long time and it's hard to – ”

"It was your fault." 

"Gloria, the two of us were the one who snuck out in the middle of the night by ourselves." Hop repeats the story he has been told for years. He can barely remember that period himself - he was almost catatonic for almost a year after. Shock, all the adults had said.

The laugh that bursts from Gloria's mouth is almost deranged. "How much longer are you going to keep lying to your little brother?"

"Gloria - " When Lee bends to touch her shoulder, she smacks his hand away. The sound of her palm on his skin cracks through the room like thunder.

"My parents told me I remembered wrongly for years but I knew I was right - and this only confirmed it." She pulls a pokeball out of her pocket. 

"I found it exactly where I left it in my room. You gave this to us. To each of us, on Hop's birthday. That, and an endorsement letter. They destroyed records of that but they didn't know about the starter you gave me." 

Hop blinks. Everything that comes out of her mouth sounds wrong, but it still feels like there is some kind of clamperl of truth is nestling amongst the words.

"You were the one who endorsed two fourteen-year-olds with a wooloo apiece and a starter they barely knew. Then Victor didn't come back and you let Hop take the blame." 

"Lee?" 

A shudder goes through Leon's whole body when he hears his name. "I'm sorry," he saysn, sounding nothing like his perfect shining brother. 

"It took me so long to figure it out.” The words spill out of Gloria the same way as her tears, fat drops streaking down her face to splash down on the floor. I thought I was going insane. My parents kept telling me that I had dreamed up the whole day and the papers only said the same thing. 

"You endorsed us. All three of us. You gave us a pokemon each and told us to go out on our own." Her voice cracks. "And I stayed behind because I was afraid but Victor and Hop went ahead and Victor never came back." 

Hop waits for Lee's denial. It is like wishing on a falling star he supposes - it doesn't matter that he knows it is not coming, he can't help but hope.  

"Do you know Kanto tried to do the same thing one time because they needed soldiers?" She swipes at her face but the tears do not stop. "They called it the Youngster programme. You just had to pass a written test, some basic camping survival, and you'd be given a starter - mostly bug pokemon - and sent out into the world with a kiss. It was a massacre." 

"But Lee didn't," Hop says numbly. 

She snorts. "Leon had a charizard." 

And this is the truth that Hop has always avoided - that Lee might have become the youngest ever champion, not because of great talent or skill but because of unfair luck. Alexander had been hatched by their grandfather, and trained as a charmeleon by their father until Leon finally inherited him. 

Until fairy pokemon were discovered - or existing pokemon successfully adapted defences against these apex predators depending on which professor you asked - dragons were unbeatable. Champions from other regions always had a number of them in their line-up - hell, Lance, the longest-reigning champion from Kanto had made his whole team around them. The only reason why every wannabe champion didn't have a dragon monotype team was because they were incredibly rare, took literal generations to raise before they were fit for the championship circuit, and were extremely dangerous to look after.

Alexander had ploughed through the gym challenge - old and powerful enough that it could easily take down pokemon that were usually its weaknesses. Leon just did it with so much grace that the press loved writing about how the two moved as one. 

Hop thinks of the years he spent wishing he could be like his brother. He thinks of the cake parting under his knife, the pecha slices that decorated the frosting. How the pokeball felt smooth in his hand. He remembers the sun setting as he made his way through the grass. 

"Please say something, Lee," Hop pleads. He thinks this silence might be even worse than a lie. 

Even the cape on Leon's shoulders seem to slump. "I don't - I don't have any excuses. Hop, Gloria, I'm sorry." 

"Is this why you never came home?" Hop asks. Everything feels too hot, his skin too tight around his chest. "Because you were ashamed?" 

Leon nods. 

"But why? Why did you have to - ?"

"Because Macro Cosmos can't have its beloved champion in the wrong," Gloria spits. "They had to cover up so it didn't look like he didn't make a massive error in judgement and just sent two abysmally underprepared boys into the wild by themselves. I want to say don't blame him, Hop, because the fault wasn't just him - our parents took hush money as well and let the both of us think we were both crazy. The only difference is that yours stayed here and mine left."

"They were supposed to take the train to Motostoke," Lee says quietly. "I was going to meet them there."

Hop remembers now - the train shuddering to a halt, the announcement that there was a wooloo herd on the tracks. The setting sun as they clambered out of the compartment to walk towards Motostoke, through the Wild Area. They could see its towers from a distance so it couldn't have been too far - or at least, that's what he had kept telling Victor. 

"Don't even try to blame it on them," Gloria snaps. "You know it wasn't their fault."

"But it was my fault," Hop says slowly. Victor had wanted to wait at the station for the next train. Hop had shouted over his protests and pulled the quiet boy past the gates of the Wild Area. It had been Hop's idea to race toward the Motostoke entrance. Victor's death was Hop's fault, there is no other way to look at it and he says so. 

Gloria's face is very pale. "Victor," she says. Hop remembers that Victor had been the older twin. It was easy to forget sometimes because Gloria had always been louder, brasher. Maybe Victor had also been to her a little like what Leon was to him. 

Leon. He is shaking his head now, his hands fisted up as he crosses then across his chest.  "Why did you come back?"

"For Victor." Gloria's voice sounds like it is coming from very far away, and Hop sees that her fists are clenched too. Then she presses her lips into a thin line and squares her shoulders as she faces Lee. 

"And that's where you come in," she says. 

"I want you to endorse me for the gym challenge." 

Chapter Text

The expression on Lee's face tells Gloria he thinks she is insane. 

"The Gym Challenge? Haven't you just told me that I was wrong - " 

"To endorse some fourteen-year-olds who didn't have any prior training. Which I am not." 

"Your team," Hop interjects. "You said that you had to leave them all behind."

She grits her teeth. She'd spent years with those pokemon, playing and training with them. They deserved better than being frozen in storage until she got back to Hoenn. And Arceus knows when she will go back. "I'll build a new one." 

"Are you sure?" Leon asks in his deep baritone. It is the voice that makes hearts melt across the screen, but Gloria has always been too angry to be affected. 

"I told you. I'm doing this for Victor.” 

"Doing this won't bring him back."

She could roll her eyes at the cliché. She does. "I know that," she snarls. "I'm doing it because if he never got the chance to even start the gym challenge, I should at the very least try." She doesn't talk about how she intends to be the one to knock Leon off his pedestal. And she definitely doesn't talk about how the gym challenge is the best way to snoop in as many different towns as possible. (There is something up with Marco Cosmos - they are shady even when compared to other business giants like Aether Foundation and Devon Corporation.) 

As angry as she is - at Leon, at Hop (she should have known that he was the one to drag Victor) and herself (if she had only been there she could have stopped Hop so if you really thought about it, it was her fault) - she knows that it would not help her case. 

"I have to get approval to endorse you."

Gloria splutters. "Approval? From who? Are you the unbeatable champion or not?" 

"Approval because you aren't a registered trainer in Galar, and I only have your word that you're trained!" 

She slips her freshly minted trainer ID from her pocket and waves it at his face. 

"I did my paperwork before coming here," she snaps. "And I'm happy to have a battle here, right now, to prove that I'm capable of being a trainer." 

Leon scowls and examines her ID. "Wait - Pokemon Trainer Victoria?" 

She snatches the ID back. It is the first time she’d heard the name out loud. "Nicknames aren't illegal. And I don't need the press digging into my past while I'm taking on the Gym Challenge." 

There is something that looks like sympathy on his face. She hates it. "Okay." He exhales. "We'll head down to Route 1 and see what you're like in action."

"No need," Hop interrupts. "I can battle her." 

"Hop." Leon's expression is pained. 

"You believed in me once, Lee." 

And that is how they end up in the yard of Leon's and Hop's mansion. She can almost smell the barbeques they used to have together. The flowers are blooming all along the neatly-trimmed bushes, the lines painted on the concrete patch more faded than she remembered. Hop's mother - a little rounder, her hair a little greyer - pokes her head out of the front door to observe them and Gloria has to wave awkwardly. She beams and ducks back in,  happy, no doubt, to finally see Leon and Hop playing together. From the sparse correspondence between herself and Hop, Gloria knows that the family has barely seen Leon for years. She is almost sorry that she's broken all trust Hop has in his big brother - but then remembers why she did it, and stops feeling sorry. 

Hop whistles, and a scorbunny bounces out from the house.

(Whatever had happened to Victor's sobble? She realises she doesn’t want to think about it.)

"Well," Hop says. "I have the type advantage."

"Type advantage isn't everything," Gloria returns. She whispers a quick strategy in the grookey's ear and sees the understanding in his eyes. "Good boy," she whispers. "You get a treat after this." 

Leon stands at the side to officiate the match, barely looking enthusiastic.

"Match begins in three - two - one - go!" 

Tempo doesn't let the scorbunny take a step before it opens its mouth and gives an ear-splitting screech. The scorbunny drops to its knees immediately, clutching its large ears. 

Without wasting a beat, the grookey taps a rhythm onto the ground with its sticks and vines burst from the soil to wrap tightly around the scorbunny's limbs, immobilizing the pokemon. 

"Leech seed!" Gloria yells. The grookey's tapping change its rhythm, and flowers bloom along the vines, unfurling from tightly woven buds in seconds. Tiny seeds spray from the flowers to land in the scorbunny's flesh. 

"Come on, Scotch!" Hop shouts, his face all red. "Ember!"

The scorbunny spits fire from its mouth, burning the vines wrapped around its legs. But it is too late, the seeds have burrowed themselves in its flesh before it finishes burning the vines away. 

Gloria feels herself smile for the first time. Yes, she still misses her team - back in Hoenn she had a breloom with a nasty right hook and who could follow up the leech seed with poison powder. But her grookey is a far better pokemon than she'd expected - somehow, when she let him out the previous night he’d recognised her scent and hadn’t been too alarmed to realise he'd been frozen in stasis for six years. She'd cleaned the house while feeding him berries and he eventually wanted to help, climbing up high shelves to get at the cobwebs on the ceiling.

"Use screech again!" she shouts, and the grookey gives another ear-splitting shriek. The scorbunny drops to the ground again, but not before letting another burst of flame flies towards the grookey. She shouts a warning, but the grookey has already leapt away. The flame lands on the painted concrete and dies out.  

"Scotch, use ember again!" Hop yells. 

The scorbunny huffs another breath of flame towards Tempo, who twists to move out of its way, but not before a tuft of green fur catches fire. 

"Way to go Scotch!" cheers Hop. 

The grookey immediately drops to the ground. For a moment, Gloria's heart stops - Already? Had she pushed him too hard? But all he does is roll, neatly dodging another blast of flame from the scorbunny as he smothers the fire on his body and gets back up. 

This pokemon is a fighter, she thinks. It might be pride in her chest.  

"Tempo, vine whip!" Vines come out again to lash at the scorbunny while the grookey keeps its distance from the flames. "Yes, you've got it! Now tackle!" 

Tempo runs in a zig-zag line to dodge the fire attacks, then slams into the scorbunny. This time, the scorbunny does not get up from the ground.  

And there's your type advantage. 

She turns to Leon. "Satisfied?" Tempo clambers onto her back and settles onto her shoulders, chattering happily. She digs into her pocket for a berry and passes it to the pokemon. 

Making sure she had the first move was the only way to beat the scorbunny. Even so, without leech seed draining the scorbunny's health every second, there would have been no way to win, given the scorbunny's superior speed and type advantage. Unfortunately, it wasn't a strategy she could use again - grookey grew slower as they aged, trading speed for bulk. 

"Well." Leon crosses his arms. "You're not a completely green trainer." 

She rolls her eyes, but she thinks he is reluctantly impressed. She knows she is, not by her own skill, but how quickly the grookey adapted.

"So will you endorse me?" 

"And what about me?" Hop asks, cradling the injured scorbunny. 

Leon has that worried expression on his face again. "Hop, you don't have to feel pressured- " 

"I'm not being pressured, Lee." Hop's stubborn expression is exactly the same as his brother's. "I should get a chance to try too. Properly, this time." 

Leon sighs and puts a hand to cover his face. "It's not that I don't believe in you, little brother. It's just - the world is a really different place from what you know."

"I know," Hop insists.  He takes out a pokeball and the scorbunny collapses into red pokepower. The light snaps back into the ball. "I'm an adult, alright? I've been working jobs since I graduated, I've travelled out of Postwick, I know what it's like. Besides," he adds, expression souring. "I think you owe me as much as Gloria."

Gloria sees the denials that rise up in Leon's mouth like a hundred drifloons, then burst into nothing before he opens his mouth to speak. He slumps his shoulders, and for the first time, does not look like their unbeatable champion. 

"You need to understand," he says. "I'm trying to protect you." 

"From what?" Hop asks, frustrated. 

Leon makes a strangled noise. "I can't say - just trust me when I say it's all not as cracked up as you think it is." 

"What, do you mean the paparazzi, the non-stop interviews, having to serve Chairman Rose's every need?" Gloria asks. She sees how Leon stiffens slightly when she mentions Rose. 

"You think you're so clever," he says quietly. "But you don't know. You really don't." 

"Then tell us." She tries to soften her voice, to hide all her impatience and fury. How many secrets is he hiding in that ridiculous cape of his? What is going on in Galar? 

But all Leon does is shake his head again. He pulls out his rotom phone and taps a few buttons. Gloria's and Hop's phones beep at the same time. Gloria unlocks her screen to find the message Champion Leon has endorsed Trainer Victoria for the Galar Gym Challenge!

"I really hope you think it's worth it," Leon says, his voice colder than a froslass' breath. "Coming back to dig up the past, hurting Hop - " 

"It's my past too," Gloria hisses. How dare he try to blame her? "And don't put your lies on me." 

"It's true," Hop cuts in before Leon can deny something else. "It's not her fault you've not come home for years." 

"Hop." Leon turns to him. "Little brother, I need you to know everything I've done, I've done to protect you." 

Hop shakes his head. "I believe that Lee, but you've got a funny way of showing it. I'm an adult now. The least you can do now is explain.” Leon says nothing, just drops his gaze and turns away. 

Hop exhales. "Right then. Looks like I'm going to have to beat your ass in the championships to get the answers out of you." 

Leon doesn't even crack a smile at that. "I'll see you at the finals then, brother." He releases his charizard from the pokeball and climbs on top of the drake. With a roar and a flap of its wings, the charizard speeds away.

Hop's mother pops out of the front door again. "Did Leon just leave?" she asks. Gloria wonders when was the last time she spent time with her son. To Gloria's surprise, she turns to Gloria, her face beaming. "Gloria dear, you're welcome to stay for tea, if you like! It's been so long!" 

"She'll be leaving in a bit, mum," Hop replies before Gloria can answer. He steps closer to Gloria. 

"Hop - "

"While I might understand, why you did it, don't think that I'm not mad at you." When he crosses his arms, he looks very much like his brother. 

"I only wanted to know the truth." She hates how petulant she sounds.  

“Yeah?” Hop looks thoroughly unimpressed. "You could have done it without the dramatics then. Don't lie to me and tell me that text to Leon wasn't about hurting him." 

Gloria feels something stick in her throat. "I didn't know any other way to get him to meet." 

"Did you try?" he asks, and she can only shake her head. "You could also have given me a heads up before dropping the bombshell on me."

"And would you have believed me?" Gloria snaps, feeling her temper flare. Her grookey makes a noise, and she can feel his claws digging into her shoulder as he leans towards Hop. A part of her is slightly proud of him, that he is already so attuned to her anger. 

Anger. Yes. It is much more familiar to her, something she has gone to bed with and woken up clutching as she puzzled the badly put together lies to herself oceans away. She doesn't want anything to do with the weight of guilt. 

"I don't know," he replies. "You never gave me that choice." 

She sucks in a breath, knows that there is no good reason for her not telling Hop first. She had tried, over breakfast, which now feels years ago. Had tapped a dozen different messages to him on her train from Wyndon but found that she couldn't bring herself to. In person, she'd told herself first. Then, When Leon gets here. For all her talk about wanting to know the truth, she didn't deal with it well.  

"I'm sorry," she says, and hating how empty the words sound as they leave her mouth. She wishes she could hug him the way they did as children. 

Hop sighs. "Yeah, I'm hearing that a lot this morning." 

"I'll see you in Motostoke for the opening ceremony then." She really really wishes she could hug him. "Good luck, Hop." 

Even as she walks away, a part of her hopes that he will call out to her, tell her that it was a good battle, ask her to stay, wish her luck back for her journey. Something. Anything.

She only hears the slam of his door as she walks down the familiar path back to her house. It is more overgrown than she remembers.

Before she fumbles with her keys, she gets another message on her phone.

Trainer Hop has transferred five hundred PokeDollars to your account.

“Fuck,” she says. Her grookey does not let go of her neck as she cries.

Chapter Text

“Wake up, girl. Wake up! ” 

She slowly blinks herself into the waking world - but it is such a struggle to keep her eyes open. She thinks she must still be dreaming though, because she is seeing the silhouette of her grandmother on her bed. 

“Gran?”

“I need you to listen to me.”

She stifles a yawn. "’m listening.” 

“It’s very important that you do.” Something pushed into her hand - a notebook from the feel of it. "I’m leaving my notes with you.” 

“Are you going somewhere?” 

“No.” Her grandmother sighs. “But this is just in case.” She strokes her hair, something she has not done since she was very young. 

“I know things have not turned out the way people were expecting you to,” her grandmother says. She presses a kiss onto her forehead, and she is sure she is dreaming. “But I am very proud of you.” 

She yawns again. “I love you too, Gran.” 

“Grace, let's go.” The professor’s ralts makes a soft noise of assent, and then the top of its head starts to glow. She falls back asleep before they teleport away. 

That is the very last time Sonia sees her grandmother. 

 

Galar. The Darkest Day. Macro Cosmos. New Dynamax spots. 

Professor Magnolia's death. 

Sonia knows that it is all linked somehow. She just needs to figure out how. Even if her grandmother had not. 

Sonia is not Gary Oak, or Sapphire Birch, or any other of the offspring of esteemed pokemon professors. Once, she had been the hope of her generation - one of two trainers endorsed by Chairman Rose himself. The media had been following her then, hanging for interviews with every victory. 

She dropped out of the League Challenge before even reaching the eighth gym. Meanwhile, her peers - Nessa, Raihan, and of course, the unbeatable champion Leon - blazed on, and have remained shining since. She came back to Postwick after throwing up for hours in her hotel room in Hammerlocke - she never even made it to the stadium - and watched their successes on television. Afterwards, she let every member of her team go. What was the point of keeping them if they were never going to be brought the glory they deserved? Only her yamper, Amelia, had stayed. 

A very small part of her had been relieved when she had dropped out when she did. She had experienced first-hand how vicious the press - and now, anonymous trolls on social media - can be. She knows what it can all do to a person, has seen the changes in her friends. Like Nessa. 

As a teen, Nessa had always been self-conscious of her body. She wore long-sleeved baggy clothing to cover herself and tried to hide her height by hunching. But when Nessa had come on screen for the first time as the Hulberry gym leader two years after finishing the Gym Challenge, her oiled skin gleaming under the stadium lights, her hair straightened and with the blue streak in it. She had looked like a goddess, not the quiet girl whose hand Sonia had held as they went around Galar. 

Maybe it is growing up. Maybe Sonia is, as some parts of the internet would suggest, just a broken down jealous bitch who just can't measure up. She certainly didn't speed through her PhD in Pokebiology the way her grandmother did. Her dissertation was shelved in the university archive dutifully but she has no illusions about it being groundbreaking in any way. 

Sonia knows what she is, and how much she falls short in every way that counts.  

But that doesn't change the fact that something fishy is going on in Galar, and it stinks worse than day-old arrokuda. 

A knock on the door of her apartment, and she freezes. Sparks begin to fly around Amelia's mouth as the yamper feels her tense. She reaches for the escape rope she always has tucked away in her pocket. 

"It's me," Gloria's voice says. Sonia relaxes slightly but her hand does not leave the escape rope. With her free hand, she tucks her grandmother's notebook into the large pockets of her lab coat and then reaches for Amelia's pokeball. Amelia had been given strict instructions to charge up the room and destroy everything if commanded. She worries about her reflexes - the yamper is not a pup anymore and despite being an electric type, its short legs do not ever develop a boltund's speed. Maybe she should get another pokemon. Something psychic maybe, so they can teleport away if they ever came for her. When they came for her.  

"Sonia?" 

"Coming!" Sonia calls, her voice a little higher pitched than normal. She taps the password for the door on the keypad next to her on the wall. It swings open and Gloria steps in. 

"Stand down, Amelia." She drops the pokeball back into her coat with a sigh. 

Gloria's nose wrinkles slightly. "You need a shower." 

"I can't teleport out of here when I'm in the shower. The escape rope will get wet." 

Gloria pauses, as though she is considering her words. "I'll guard the place for you," she finally says. "Go shower." 

Sonia hesitates, turning the sentences over in her mind. She can't find a reason to argue, so heads over to the bathroom and Amelia follows, panting. 

In the enclosed space, she finds that yes, the rank smell that she had assumed was stale food did, in fact, come from her person. She throws her clothes on the floor and is slightly alarmed when she realises how matted Amelia's fur has become. 

"Come on, girl," she murmurs as she turns the shower on. Amelia does not even struggle as she lifts her into the spray. 

Keeping electric types clean is always tricky. The electric mice family, pikachu and its many closely related family members, prefer dry sand baths and lots of brushing. Amelia has liked to climb into showers with her since she was a pup, and as much as she loves her yamper she spent years terrified that someone was going to discovered her charred naked corpse in the bathtub one day. But it has been years, and Amelia has not let a single spark fly while she cavorts under the spray. 

Once she is under the hot water, it is hard not to relax. She scrubs herself raw - who knows when she will next have the time for a shower? - and soaks her skin with soap and then lotions and oils. She brushes Amelia's fur and blow dries it, and then does the same to her own hair, leaving it to fall straight instead of curling it in her usual ringlets. She badly needs a haircut for the dry ends, her nail polish has nearly all chipped away and she can't remember the last time she had bothered with makeup. It is hard to care of these things when the future of Galar rests on your ability to puzzle out the impossible. 

Not since the funeral. She hasn’t touched her makeup since the funeral. There hadn’t been any point. Her grandmother’s assistants had handled all the arrangements, and she could only rock in her grief, playing that last conversation with her grandmother over and over again. 

If only she had woken up properly. If only she had insisted her grandmother stay with her. 

Macro Cosmos. Chairman Rose. That snooty secretary with the flower name - Oleanna. Wasn't that a poisonous flower? No that was Oleander. What mother would name their daughter Oleanna?  For that matter - why were there so many flower names amongst the people in Galar? 

Her head hurts, as though she had been forced to read another hundred too-similar dissertations while trying to puzzle out how hers was any different. 

When she finally emerges from the bathroom in a towel, she sees that Gloria has opened up the curtains, letting natural light flood the room in weeks. She almost shrieks but stops herself from running across the room to slam the curtains shut, just pads over to her bedroom quickly.

She is going crazy. A part of her knows this. 

It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you, another part of her reminds herself. She pulls on a dress from her wardrobe, still mostly clean, piles all her dirty laundry into a basket and heads out to put it in the washing machine. She can feel her head clearing slightly as she dumps the laundry detergent into the machine, tries to tell herself that she has at least done two things today, but now she just feels exhausted. 

In the kitchen, Gloria has her largest pot over the stove.  "There was mould on the takeout, so I know you haven't been eating," she grumbles. 

"I haven't had time." 

"Taurus shit. You just haven't been taking care of yourself." Gloria ladles out two bowls from the pot and sets them on the floor. Amelia scampers over to her bowl, yapping excitedly. Then a small leaf green monkey comes out of nowhere and reaches for the second bowl. 

"If you're not going to feed yourself, then who will look after Amelia?" 

Amelia has already finished her bowl and looks at Gloria eagerly until she pours more food into the empty bowl. Sonia feels a pang of guilt then. 

"Sorry," she says, scratching the yamper's ears. Amelia does not respond, just continues slurping up the food. Gloria mutters something along the lines of Finally someone appreciates my cooking but before Sonia can ask she has her own bowl slammed down in front of her. 

"Eat," Gloria orders so fiercely that Sonia is too frightened to not obey. 

The doorbell rings and Sonia almost starts up in fright again. Her lab coat - and the escape rope - is still in the bathroom. "No, don't - " she chokes out but it is too late, Gloria has already opened the door and then she is walking into the kitchen with armfuls of brown paper bags. She shuts the door and starts taking out things from the bag and putting them away - perishables like fruit and bread and eggs, but also packets of popcorn, smoked tepig ham, instant ramen, instant curry packets, and macaroni and cheese. There is even a large stack of canned food for yampers. 

Sonia thinks of how her grandmother used to insist that Sonia take an old lady out to eat every week, and yet always paid the bill after. "Thank you." 

Gloria waves aside her thanks, unseeing of all the memories that hang with the words. "It's nothing," she says. Then she is all business. "Did you get everything?" 

Sonia points to the corner of the room. 

Gloria picks up the large dubwoolskin bag - treated so that the already resilient leather is waterproof - and starts pulling out the items packed inside. A tent. A collapsible cauldron. Trail mix, water purification tablets, a knife, rope. And of course, balls, potions, antidotes - all the things a pokemon trainer could need to for their journey. 

“A rotom phone? Sonia, you know these things give me the creeps." 

“Trust me, it’ll come in handy. It also has the latest pokedex app installed." 

Gloria is still glaring at the phone with distaste. "Can't I just have a regular pokedex?" 

"They don't make those anymore here." 

Gloria mutters something that sounds like Corporate scumbags under her breath, and tucks the phone into the pocket of her jeans. Sonia sighs in relief - at least the trainer isn't being too stubborn to recognise the stupidity of travelling without a pokedex. 

"Did you get your trainer ID and visa without issues?" 

"Yeah. I think they were a little nicer about my application because my passport's Hoenn, and we have Kabu as a shining example." Gloria wrinkles her nose. "The trainer registration wasn't that tough once I showed them my Hoenn badges. Looks like they want new blood here for the cameras. I think they were a little disappointed when they realised that I wasn't an Imperial." 

Gloria repacks the bags, throws in more things from the bag she'd brought along. Another change of clothes. Some of the packets of ramen and curry. Toiletries - which Sonia can't believe she forgot to pack. Something that looks like lip gloss. 

Sonia laughs. "You? Makeup?" 

"Have to look nice on screens before I curb stomp everyone into the dirt," Gloria shrugs as she zips everything up. She stands and heaves the bag on. 

“Thank you,” she says. “I want to ask how you’ve been holding up, but I know - " 

Sonia nods into her food. The thing about Gloria is that she understands. Gloria is the only one who would not call her crazy. It is why Sonia had called her a month ago, right after she got the news. 

Gas explosion, they had said. The professor had probably left a stove on. There was nothing left of the mansion after that. There was some speculation in the papers about dementia, reminding everyone that the good professor had grown more crotchety as she wasn’t a young fletchling anymore. 

“They got gran,” Sonia had said on the phone. "She's dead." 

“Get off the grid," Gloria had replied immediately. “I’m coming over.” Not once had Gloria said I told you so - even though Sonia had never taken any of her conspiracy theories before seriously before that, and always tried to change the subject gently before. 

It had taken Gloria a month to settle everything on her end - obtaining the travel documents, persuading her parents that she was an adult and could most definitely travel on her own, dealing with all the paperwork that basically restricted most of her Hoenn team from entering Galar. Gloria called Sonia every day to check that she was alive. 

Meanwhile, Sonia sat in the dark and failed to make sense of her grandmother's scribblings. (She just can’t stop falling short, can she?) The notebook is almost full of notes on Macro Cosmos' business dealings that stretch over the last twenty years, of how, in the years before that, of the slow dismantling of the elite four over the years until only the champion remained. And then, more puzzlingly still, interspersing all of that are notes on the Darkest Day, of Galar's ancient heroes - events that took place more than a millennia ago. There is a code somewhere in all this, a link - but every time she thinks she gets close, a headache sets in. 

"Wish I could have done more," Sonia whispers. 

"You've done plenty." Gloria hugs her tightly. "Maybe you should get out of the house. Do some field research." 

"Mm." It doesn't sound like that bad an idea. Except for the part of her shouting that it is. Outside means that they can find you. Find you and then they can buy you or own you or dispose of you once they can't use you anymore. 

There hadn’t even been enough left of her grandmother for a casket. 

"I mean it. You can join me."

Sonia laughs. Nobody would want her tagging along. 

"I'll think about it," she says instead. 

Gloria looks worried still. 

"I'll be fine! Really!" 

"I wish I could believe you," Gloria says. 

Sonia tries to make use of her height advantage - all inch and a half of it. 

"Don't be rude. I'm still your elder." 

"Mmhmm." Gloria gives her another hug, then whistles. "Come on, Tempo!" 

The green monkey climbs on her body and clambers on the pack. 

“Wait.” Sonia struggles to remember where she has seen the pokemon before. “Is that a grookey? I thought those were nearly extinct." 

Gloria shrugs. "I got him from Leon, years back. Figures he pulled strings to make sure we all got good starters." The grookey makes a chattering sound on her back, as though she knows it and she scratches its cheek affectionately. “You better pick up when I call you.” 

"Good luck," Sonia whispers. 

The door shuts and Sonia is left alone with her thoughts again. 

Chapter Text

There are many things in her life that Gloria regrets. She wishes she had been kinder to Victor when they were children. She wishes she'd told him how much she had loved him when she still could. 

(And now, after seeing Sonia, not coming back to Galar sooner ranks high on the list. She still wonders if leaving her alone in the apartment was the right thing.)

But topping the list is still staying in Postwick while Victor went ahead with Hop to the challenge. 

Until today, she does not know why did it. She was supposed to be the impulsive twin who would dash into wild grass on a dare with Hop, who would take turns climbing over the fence leading to the Slumbering Weald and run back giggling, while Victor fretted and overthought everything. But when the train at Wedgehurst sped off, she was left on the platform by herself. She cried the whole walk back home. 

Come on, Gloria. Victor had tried to coax her onto the train carriage in the same voice he used on spooked wooloos. We can do this. 

Neither Victor nor Gloria had ever ventured beyond Wedgehurst before that. Train tickets were too expensive, even for a short vacation. They'd spent much of their childhoods on thirdhand phones poring over images of the other cities - shining Wyndon with its clean wide streets and multi-storey buildings, Hammerlocke's twisting turrets, the glittering sea at Hulberry. Victor had been enchanted by all the videos of glowing mushrooms in Ballonlea, while Gloria had wanted to see the dragons in Hammerlocke's gym. 

(She should have guessed hush money was involved from the very beginning - there was no way they would have been able to afford all the moves, and always in comfortable safe neighbourhoods, otherwise.) 

And now she has seen all the gleaming skyscrapers and beaches and fancy malls, while Victor has not. 

And now she is on the train bound for Motostoke, alone. 

When Gloria rests her head on the table, she tries not to cry. She is so tired of crying. 

I'm not alone, she tells herself over and over. She has Tempo and Seriyu, resting in their balls at her hip. Sonia is back in Postwick but they will call every day. She isn’t alone.  

 

The train stops at the Wild Area station, and Gloria gets off. 

There are many reasons why this is a good idea, she tells herself, even though she had initially bought a ticket for Motostoke. 

The first: she can't challenge Milo's gym with a grookey and magikarp alone, so she will need to catch herself a brand new team. 

Second: she will have to train whatever new ferals she captures. And it is far better to train them in the wild, rather than the streets of a city - feral pokemon do not deal well with the crashing sounds of machinery and the abundance of smells. 

She had spent years planning her return, knows every pokemon in the region, every gym leader's team, studied for hours every one of Galar's unique regional forms. She knows what she has to do to win, and how to build her team up steadily along the way. She won’t get the experience she needs by sticking to the trains. 

Milo is a powerful trainer, but is well known for being very kind - which is why he has always been placed as the first gym leader. Nessa after that - she would expect her grookey to have evolved to thawkey then, and would be an asset in that fight. Kabu was well-known to be the first real challenge - she would have to make sure her team was in solid shape by then. 

So get to Motostoke and wander around the areas closer to the Motostoke entrance, the salandit hindbrain of hers shrieks. If she enters from this entrance, she will have to camp in the Wild Area for the night. 

If I want to beat Leon I’m going to have to at least know how to camp in the Wild Area myself, she tells herself firmly. I can do this. I’ve spent weeks in the Petalburg woods on my own. I can do this. 

(She will not think of the closed casket at her brother’s funeral.)

But the Petalburg woods is not the Wild Area. The climate in Galar is far more unpredictable than Hoenn - temperatures shift quickly, sandstorms can start all of a sudden, and be followed by a blizzard immediately after. The Galar scientists have never quite agreed on the cause for this. Did the many microclimates of the Wild Area exist because of the sheer number of pokemon living in the area changing the environment to best suit their needs? Or did their human ancestors learn to build their settlements away from the naturally shifting landscapes? 

She will leave that to the scientists and philosophers. The Wild Area looms ahead of her, the entrance fenced off by high walls. 

"Hold on there," a guard holds out a hand to block her path. He is grizzled and grey-haired, the skin of his arm covered with scars. "Sign this before you go in." He shoves a rotom tablet at her. 

She glances down at the form on the screen. "A waiver?" 

"Is this your first time, kid?” The man groans. "Do me a favour and don't die on my shift, will you?" 

She ignores his grousing and checks the form quickly - the signee hereby exempts the Government of Galar from any responsibility should the signee or their pokemon receive injuries or death while in the Wild Area, blah blah blah. It's not a new thing really, she's heard that the Viridian Woods in Kanto has had these for years. She just doesn't remember them from when she was reading up on them in Galar when she was a child, and says so aloud. 

"When did we start with these waivers?" 

"A few years back. Too many kids sneaking in, thinking if they can catch something big they're going to be the next hotshot champion," the guard snorts. "We find their bones a few weeks later. Either mauled to death by a pokemon, or dead from exposure." 

"I'll be careful not to die on your watch," she says dryly. She wonders if her brother's death had anything to do with the policy, how many of the children who snuck in had actually been endorsed and registered as proper trainers. She sees conspiracies everywhere since getting back, but she can’t help it. She shakes off the image of children freezing to death and hands the tablet back to the guard. "How's the patrolling these days?" 

"Patrolling? Ha. Like we can spare that kind of manpower. Trainer ID," he says and she passes over the laminated card dutifully. "If you're in there for too long we send some men to look for your remains. We don't even have halfway houses in the area anymore. Funding got cut." 

"What?" 

"Well, there are some Macro Cosmos men in the area, who'll trade supplies for dynamax watts with trainers." The disgust on his face makes it very clear what he thinks of those men, regardless of how callously he'd spoken of dead trainers earlier. "Whether they'll help you out if you're starving, or need supplies but don't have the watts to trade for them, who knows." 

"Are you telling me Macro Cosmos runs the Wild Area now?" Surely something as big as that would reach the news in Hoenn.

His tanned skin darkens a little, as though he'd realised he had said too much. "It's still state land," he said gruffly. "Young un's join the private rangers division when they graduate, the pay there is better. Then the government gives the contract to Macro Cosmos so they do the patrolling in there. So the rest of us still sticking around outside of the Wild Area are just waiting for our pensions." He hands her ID back to her. "Good luck, trainer." 

Gloria mumbles a thanks and steps in. 

 

She has seen the photos of the Wild Area from childhood, has studied the terrain for years and knows every pokemon and their different habitats. She has lived in the treetops of Fortree City, explored the routes around Lavaridge Town, has camped for weeks in Petalburg Woods and fended against all sorts of wild pokemon. 

And yet, nothing has prepared her for this. 

The first thing that hits her like a sledgehammer to her head is the noise - the deep rumble of an onix and the grinding of its body as it slowly trundles past her line of vision.  She hears the chatter of skwovets, the cawing of rookidees, something that sounds like an oddish - all of them just notes amidst a thousand other calls that make up a mad cacophony. 

She smiles despite herself, giddy, adrenaline pulsing through her veins. This is what it is to be a trainer. The forest is alive, and so is she. 

The first Macro Cosmos ranger she runs into isn't situated all that far from the entrance. 

"Hello, trainer!" He grins, all white, even teeth. This one is still in his twenties, with a movie star chin and an even tan. While the guard outside had been in a well-worn uniform, this one is packing expensive full body armour. "First time in the Wild Area?" 

"Is it that obvious?” (She is starting to get annoyed. She is not that green a trainer, why does she feel so much like an outsider here then?) 

"Well, you're not carrying a Watt Collector, for one!" he laughs, and hands over a bulky watch. "You can use this to collect watts from dynamax dens or any wild pokemon charged up with watts you beat!" 

She accepts it gingerly, strapping it over her hand. The watch, of course, has a Macro Cosmos logo emblazoned on its face. "So I just stick the watch over the den?" 

"Yup! You'll know which ones have power if they give off a red or purple light! But watch out for the dynamax pokemon, you don't want to take them out all on your own!" 

"Got it," she says. It is a feat to not roll her eyes - he sounds like he’d stepped off the peppy commercials she’d seen flashing in Wyndon

He flashes perfect white teeth at her again. "Good luck, trainer!" 

Gloria is not someone who scoffs at people who took care of their looks. But the contrast between the two trainers - the battle-scarred older man and the picture perfect younger man was unnerving. Did Macro Cosmos put all their employees through surgery? All trainers had scars (and freckles, and sunburns and blotchy tans) - it was a natural part of working with animals that were essentially sentient weapons.

No wonder the older guard had been contemptuous. 

None of this matters, Gloria. She doesn't need to get into a pissing contest now on what real trainers should look like. The opening ceremony is in two days and she has too much to do. She releases Tempo, and wordlessly offers up her shoulder for him to climb on. Then she breaks into a jog down the worn dirt path, listening to the cries of pokemon as she passes. 

 

She reaches the edge of Lake Axewell and checks for other pokemon - a few goldeen flopping in the shallow waters, but that is all. She pulls out Seriyu's pokeball. 

"Right," she says. There is a flash of red light, and her magikarp drops into the water with a splash that echoes throughout the area. "Come on love, it's showtime!" she shouts. 

"Tempo, meet Seriyu. Seriyu, Tempo." 

Tempo scampers to the edge of the water, watching the ripples and making curious sounds. When the magikarp surfaces, he backs away and climbs onto Gloria's shoulder in alarm. She strokes his head, cooing "It's okay" until he calms down, resisting the urge to laugh. 

Like all dragons, magikarps take years, sometimes decades to evolve. And they did not stop growing until then. She has no idea how old Seriyu had been when she first caught him - she had picked him up when swimming in the rivers near Wedgehurst and fed him berries and he had let her take him home. Now he is almost as long as she is tall - larger than any magikarp she’d ever seen in the wild.

(She is starting to worry. Not only will he be impossible to feed if he keeps growing, but if he does not evolve soon, she will have to catch another water type to field. An arrokuda or something. It would be hilarious beating Kabu with a magikarp though.)

"I'll be making curry after this," she tells the magikarp. "But first, we catch us a new rookidee friend, got it?” 

The magikarp splashes a little, and she grins. She has wanted a corviknight for years.  

She picks a pebble up and tosses it lightly at the field. As the stone thumps down on the ground, a flock of rookidees rise up into the sky, cawing. 

"Alright, hydro pump!" 

The blast of water bashes at the flock and they immediately come crashing down. She is immediately running towards them, each hand cradling multiple poke balls. 

“Tempo, finish up any stragglers!” 

The grookey swings down from her shoulders to the ground, and begins tapping a beat. Vines spring up again, whipping against any still-conscious rookidee back onto the dirt. Flashes of red light as she throws as many pokeball as she can. She picks the biggest one for herself, and the next two largest for dinner. The rest of the balls she packs into her bag. She should be able to sell them to a Corvicab company, or maybe to the market for those who were looking for pets. 

"Good job, team." She tosses a berry into the water for Seriyu, and fumbles a high-five with Tempo. He gets it in the end and starts tapping on her palm a few more times to be sure. Adorable. 

The lakeside is not a good place to set up camp - too many pokemon will wander over for a drink, an unknown number of gyrados swimming in its depths. That, and she should get closer to Motostoke before the sun sets. She retrieves Seriyu into his ball and jogs around the side of the lake for an hour until she finds a spot that does not seem to be teeming with other pokemon. There is a grove of trees nearby, so she sends Tempo to shake the skwovets of their berry stash while she sets up the cooking equipment. Seriyu she releases to flop onto the grass to keep watch for any wild pokemon. 

She has the rookidees bled out, plucked, and dressed, then dropped into a pot of boiling saltwater. All the movements familiar to her, though she suspects it will taste gamier than pidgey. Seriyu almost vibrates with excitement - she hopes this means that he is getting closer to evolving, if he is getting this hungry for meat. Tempo bounds up with his bounty in his hands, and is rewarded with the plumpest berry. 

Yes. This is familiar. The same motions as she did in Hoenn, under the same sky, even if the field is different. Even if the pokemon surrounding her is not the same. She can do this, even if she is alone. 

She wonders what pokemon Victor would have picked for his team. How would they have divided camping chores between them - likely he would have been squeamish about anything with meat and insisted on going vegetarian - or maybe he'd have grown into it?

(This is the worst part of him being gone - she will never know.)

Tempo makes a questioning noise, and she realises she’d stopped stirring the pot. There’s a slight burning smell. Taurus shit.  

But in the end, Seriyu and Tempo finish their portions enthusiastically, so she supposes she didn’t mess up too badly. She lets the rookidee out, decides to name him Orion, and is slightly unnerved that he digs straight into the stew, not seeming to mind at all that it is made out of his brethren. If only she could be so practical about death. 

She hears the crashing through the tall grass. Her pokemon immediately still themselves, ready to attack. She grabs a large stick from the fire, the end of it still smouldering. 

Please let it not be a bewear. 

Instead of a giant pink stuffed animal, two very large, but still very human figures pop out. She recognises the ridiculous cape. And the other one - she'd spent years begging her mother for a hoodie just like that. 

Leon stops laughing when he sees her and goes very still. 

“I think we should head back over to Motostoke.” 

"Why, since when were you shy about meeting new trainers?" Raihan laughs. "Oi, we smelled your cooking and wanted to come by and see if you had any left to spare." 

"Raihan, begging for scraps is hardly becoming - " 

"We'll be happy to throw in what we have in your pot, of course, we're not monsters. And we can give out a couple of autographs if you like. Holy Arceus, is that your magikarp? What a beast." 

What are you supposed to do when something someone you have spent years hating and then cried in front of after accusing and him confessing every wrong he has done shows up, looking more shy and embarrassed than the power-hungry monster you'd believed for years? She wants to turn him away. She wants to embarrass him in front of Raihan, spill every one of his dirty secrets. Tempo senses the maelstrom of confusion raging under skin, and she feels his hands squeeze her shoulders a little tighter. 

In the end, trainer obligations win out. There is something universally sacred to these rules - you battled trainers you met in the woods and the winner got money from the loser yes, but also if someone asks for help, like potions or food, you gave what you could because you never knew what help you might need in the future. She gestures at the campfire wordlessly and Raihan gives a whoop, makes some kind of explanation about staying out way longer training than he had expected that she barely hears. Leon eyes her as though she is a wild rhypherior. She can't blame him. 

"Raihan, by the way," he says as he takes the bowl of curry from her. "But I'm sure you already knew that." 

"Victoria," she says the same time Leon says "Her name's Gloria" and Raihan stares at them both in confusion. 

"Do you two know each other?" 

"No," she says at the same time Leon says "Yes". Then "Yes" when Leon says "No". 

"Okay, is she some secret girlfriend of yours or something? Because I'm getting secret girlfriend vibes here." 

"What? No!" Leon makes an incoherent noise and flings his arms into the air. "You explain to him," he says. 

Did he really want her to go there? "I grew up in Postwick with his little brother," Gloria finally says. Her voice is stilted, overly formal. "Leon was kind enough to endorse me for the gym challenge a couple of days back."

"Ohhhh so she's the other trainer you endorsed!" Raihan flings his spoon as he talks and she is genuinely worried about getting curry onto her magikarp. "You didn't tell me she was your secret girlfriend!" 

"She is not my secret girlfriend!" 

"You're really fixated on this, aren't you?" Gloria snaps. Raihan flushes, and then sticks his face back into his food. She looks back at Leon, who is tossing a handful of berries into the pot and stirring in some apples and leeks, and looks back at Raihan, who is trying very hard to not hide the fact that he is looking at Leon every two seconds while Leon is trying very hard nor to look at either of them.

Ah. Well. That is unexpected. 

"So. Ready for the opening ceremony?" Raihan finally asks after a few minutes of awkward silence, his eyebrows raised suggestively. 

Gloria blinks. "Don't I just show up at the Motostoke stadium, look at the gym leaders paraded around, and then go off?"

Raihan guffaws so loudly and for so long she feels her intelligence is being insulted. Even Leon loses his someone-has-shoved-a-stick-up-my-ass-and-it-now-replaces-my-spine expression and smiles. 

"You wish," Raihan chokes out when he finally stops laughing. "The whole thing becomes a bigger carnival every year, and all the new trainers are profiled and polled early for the public's benefit. There are official betting pools now for the public's favourites. I guess Leon didn't bother informing you when he gave you your endorsement letter, but you're going to get a lot of press attention." 

"No, he didn't inform me about that," she says, and sees Leon grin, just a little.

(She misses Hoenn. You got registered as a trainer after passing some competency tests, and you challenged the gym leaders. End of story.)

"Well," Leon says, chewing. Is he smirking? She swears he is smirking. "You'll have plenty of time to find out." 

"Too bad I don't have your natural skill with the press," she snarks. 

"Oh, I'm sure you'll be able to manipulate them fine Gloria, don't sell yourself short." 

"Oh no, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to lie to everyone about the levels of my ability, and poison a whole generation of trainers into believing unachievable, deadly dreams." 

Raihan looks at the two of them, confused. 

"Is there some kind of backstory I'm missing here? Is she a secret ex-girlfriend?" 

"No!" they both yell. She wants to smack herself - yes, utterly convincing. 

"Alright, alright, no need to bite my head off," Raihan raises his arms in surrender. "Look, Gloria, or Victoria or whatever your name is, thanks for the curry, it was great though you should watch it a bit closer next time, it was a little burned, and I'm sorry, it was clearly not the correct thing to come by to bother you, and I'm going to be going now, good luck for your gym challenge and all that - " 

"I'm coming with you," Leon says, brushing dirt off his cloak. She doesn't understand why he even had that monstrosity on when no one was around to see the corporate logos. Raihan gives an awkward wave before they stomp back through the bushes. 

Left alone, Gloria screams. Dimly she is aware that her pokemon are pressed close to her, worried. (They deserve a trainer better than her, truly.) 

Is it a betrayal to Victor’s memory if she is civil to Leon? A part of her wants to believe that he is sorry. Another part, in a voice that sounds a little like Rose, whispers that she shouldn’t antagonise one of the best-loved persons in the region before she had established herself. A thievul knows how to hide amongst the sheep. 

The plan. What had been the plan? It was simple. Get to Galar, unseat their unbeatable champion, in as humiliating way as possible. Dedicate her victory to her brother on national television. Use her position as the champion to lobby for the formation of an elite four, like other regions. Have the country break away from the Macro Cosmos’ monopoly. 

She’d told Sapphire about it before she left, who had thought she had been insane. Gloria had thought it had been a bit rich coming from her, considering her own shenanigans when she was a young trainer. 

“Where’s your faith in me?” Gloria had asked, stung. 

“Look, I know what you’re capable of,” Sapphire had replied, clapping her on the back. “But there’s a big difference between challenging the gym circuit in eighty days, and going up against a megacorporation all alone.” 

“Red did just that in the Kanto region.” 

“Red wasn’t alone,” Sapphire pointed out, painfully reasonable. “And he was in his home turf - yes I know you grew up there but you’ve been gone a long time. Things have changed. We were lucky because Ruby had Celebi with him - or we would all have died. You’re going to need your own ace before you go.”

Good advice all around. Solid sensible advice she should follow. But why then is it so hard to remember this when she is actually in Galar, in a place where she should have been with her brother? When she chokes - with anger or sadness, she does not know - whenever she sees Leon's face?

According to the papers, her brother had been stupid enough to run away without a starter, and into a dynamax den. And everyone lapped it up, blamed it on the incompetence and stupidity of the younger generation. As though children did not know to fear the wild. As though her brother had not spent his childhood clinging to the fences, too cautious to venture into the tall grass. As though he had not aced every one of their classes in school - from pokemon type theories to survival classes.

She packs away her things and puts the campfire out. Looks up and sees the scarlet light beaming into the sky in the distance. The sun is setting now, casting the world in oranges and reds. From the distance, she can still see Lake Axewell, its still surface looking like it is on fire. 

She looks at her pokemon. "Ready for a challenge?" she asks. She imagines they say yes. She recalls Seriyu, but lets Orion and Tempo perch on a shoulder each, and walks towards the red light. 

Chapter Text

Knocking. Always with the knocking. 

Sonia has holed up in her apartment for weeks and this is the third time (if you count the delivery man earlier) for today. 

That is okay. Amelia is full and charged up next to her, ready to deliver a thunderbolt to the intruder's face. She still has her grandmother's lab coat on (unwashed, but she doesn't dare put it in the washer who knows who might come in that time she is not going to leave it behind) and in it, the escape rope and the notebook. She has her grab bag in her hands before she checks the door. 

She almost drops the bag. It's Leon. 

Part of her wants to wail, to throw everything she can reach at him. He hadn't been at the funeral but had sent his condolences by text, apologised as his schedule had been booked. (As always.) 

"Sonia? It's Hop." 

She blinks and checks the screen again. That's right. Leon wouldn't spare the time to see her again now. Why would he? 

She opens the door and not-Leon steps in. 

Hold it together, a part of her tells herself. You saw him just last month at grandma’s funeral. He's one of the good ones. 

Hop looks at her, and around the room. Amelia barks and runs circles around Hop's feet. Yes. It is Hop and not someone else. Yes.

"Sonia?" 

"Hi Hop," she says. This is the normal thing to say, right? 

After Gloria had left, Sonia had pulled out her old textbooks on Galarian history and some notes from an electives course she had taken back when she was in college. Every time she attempted to read the pages, the words swam in front of her. Her head aches far more than it had before. 

(She does not understand how she has become so useless so quickly. She is the one with the PhD. Who always had a book with her when camping out during her pokemon challenge while Raihan and Leon tumbled in the mud. How has she become so bad at the one thing she had any modicum of talent in?) 

Hop does not say anything, just looks at her. 

She does not understand what he is looking at. She is still clean from the shower she had taken just a couple of hours ago.

"Hop?" A part of her begins to worry. It is Hop right? He looks so much like Leon. 

He surprises her by hugging her tightly next. Now she is very glad that she had taken that shower. 

"Alright," he says when he finally stops hugging her. "We're going." 

She blinks. "Going?" 

"You're coming with me to Motostoke," he says. 

"What?" 

He checks the bag she has slung on her shoulder. "You're already packed? Good. My train leaves Wedgehurst in an hour." 

Her head is spinning. "No, I can't - " 

"Sure you can.” 

He grabs her hand and pulls her out the door. Her feet follow. 

 

When Gloria reaches out towards the red light, it fades and the dynamax band on her wrist glows. 

300W captured, it reads. Keep going trainer! 

It even sounds like the Macro Cosmos employee she'd met earlier. Maybe it is the same writer penning their scripts.

When she climbs into the den, she hears the howl of a storm, and under that, the roar of a pokemon. Her skin crawls. She has never heard anything make a sound like that before. 

She jumps, and reaches the bottom. 

The den is far bigger inside than she expected from the outside, the ceiling looking more like the sky than an actual ceiling lit up in purple and red light. And of course, there is the butterfree, ten times larger than what it should be, its markings glowing bright.  

Orion makes a caw at her shoulder, and she turns to look at him, wondering if it was a mistake coming in here. That this is all too much too soon. 

(This is what she does not dare think about for fear that her new pokemon would catch her thoughts: that she misses her old partners so much she imagines that her new ones can do the same things and she is so afraid that she will misjudge their abilities. That she would fail them as their trainer.) 

The rookidee eyes the butterfree, and she sees that he is not shrinking back from fear. Her chest swells with pride, even though she knows it is unearned.

She had picked the largest of the birds for a reason - the one who had fought and muscled other rookidees for scraps. And of course, he would be absolutely monstrous once he evolves. She strokes his head, and he does not take his eyes off the butterfree. 

On her other shoulder, Tempo makes a nervous noise but still digs deep into her skin, stilling himself. She hears his sharp intake of breath, and he leaps onto the ground.

"Ready?" she asks. He makes a noise of assent. 

She releases Seriyu, and the enormous magikarp thrashes on the floor. 

The butterfree screams, a sound so shrill she wants to clap her hands over her ears. 

(She will not show weakness. How can she expect her pokemon to be brave if she does?)

"Grookey, leech seed!" she calls, and the grookey taps a now familiar beat. The vines grow and tangle themselves around the base of the butterfree's feet, spraying the leech seeds around the butterfree. It screams again, kicking aside the vines. 

"Orion, scary face." 

The rookidee screeches as he leaves her shoulder, flapping up close towards the butterfree. She sees it visibly flinch and she can't help but smile. A bug it seemed, was still a bug, no matter how big it got. 

Without her having to say a word, the rookidee dives straight into the butterfree's face and pecks at its eyes. It roars. 

"Razor leaf," she says, and Tempo sends the leaves spinning towards its wings. The butterfree shrugs them off as though they were nothing more than leaves floating in a breeze. 

She grits her teeth. She'd hoped that the leech seed had been in effect long enough that the razor leaves would do something. 

"Again," she says, and then louder "Orion, pluck. Seriyu, hydro pump!" 

The butterfree ignores the spinning leaves again. Its eyes glow as the rookidee approaches, and then the bird slams onto the ground. 

Seriyu opens his mouth to let out a blast of water.

It jets and hangs in the space between the two pokemon, and crashes down to the ground. It misses. 

"Fuck." 

She dashes over to the rookidee's body with a potion in her hand, even as every particle in her body cries at her to get out. There is a wrongness to this place, she thinks, adrenaline pumping in her veins. How did trainers just jump in here without issue? How could two young boys just climb into -

No. Victor wouldn't have. 

She reaches the rookidee's still body, and sprays down its wounds, watching them knit together. Tempo is at her heels, and with a flash of shame, she realises she hadn't even noticed him follow her. 

"Tempo, I need you to do Vine Whip," she tells him. "Hold it in place."

He nods, and the shame hits her again. He was a far better pokemon than she'd deserved.

The vines snake up along the ground and wrap around the butterfree's feet. 

"Seriyu, hydro pump again!" 

The butterfree jerks up.

Orion flaps into the fold again, screeching. The butterfree dives back down to the ground to avoid the incoming pokemon. 

The vines hold. 

Its eyes glow. 

And then it falls to the ground as the hydro pump crashes onto its body. 

She reaches for a pokeball and aims it at the butterfree. It opens, red light pulsing. 

The butterfree collapses into the red light and vanishes into the ball, which then falls to the ground. 

The adrenaline pulsing through her tells her she has not won. 

She is right. It takes only a few seconds for entire pokeball glows bright red from the heat and breaks open, its insides charred. 

The butterfree's enormous body reforms itself from the red pokepower and collapses on the ground. It screams. 

She remembers then, all the dynamax matches she has watched. How the trainers always dynamax their pokeballs before releasing their pokemon. 

She wants to curse at herself. How could she have forgotten? 

The butterfree is already getting back up, its eyes glowing. 

Orion is slowly blinking his eyes open. He is brave, she knows, and will fight to the last. She wonders if she can carry him and run out of there before the butterfree is fully awake. 

That is when she sees the pointed charcoal-coloured stone on the ground, its markings glowing red. 

She points. "Vine whip." 

The grookey nods and she watches the vines snake along the ground. 

The butterfree pushes itself up on unsteady limbs and screams, a voiceless psychic sound that digs into her head and threatens to splinter it open. Seriyu thrashes from side to side. Orion collapses again, his eyes closing. With shaking hands, she recalls him into his ball before he takes further damage. She sees how tightly Tempo holds onto his sticks as he continues to tap on the ground. 

The butterfree's scream goes on and on. Her vision spots.  

The vines smash against the rock and it splinters into pieces. 

A whirl of energy blasts through the cave, almost knocks her off her feet. The butterfree begins to shrink. 

She throws a pokeball. 

Scarlet light shining clean against the muddy purple and red storm clouds. 

The pokeball falls to the ground and shudders. Once. Twice. Thrice.  

A click.

The howling in the cave stops and the world goes silent. 

She lets out a breath that she had not even been aware she’d been holding. She is dimly aware of a wetness pouring out of her ears, and when she touches it, her hands come away sticky. She needs a hospital. 

Her head still throbs from the psychic cries. 

It was in pain, she realises. From the start, those weren't cries of anger that its territory had been trespassed. It had been in pain the entire time. 

She sways like a newborn mudbray as she gets up and picks up the pokeball. She imagines she can still feel an echo of its scream shuddering through her fingers. 

Seriyu continues to flop on the ground. She gives him a hug and a berry, and has a look around the cave.

She doesn’t understand what she is seeing. A small pile of multicoloured candy wrappers, each one emblazoned with a Macro Cosmos symbol. Black discs - she vaguely recognises them from her parents’ trainer days - weren’t they TRs? Did Macro Cosmos just leave them there? 

Tempo makes a soft noise and she turns back. Already, she can hear the sounds of rock scrambling. The whole cave is about to fall apart. 

She sweeps the whole pile of junk up and throws it into the bag, recalls Seriyu to his ball. Tempo, she brings to her shoulder and he holds on tight.  

She does not stop moving even when they are out of the cave.

Her pokemon need a pokemon centre. She needs a doctor. There is a faint ringing sound setting in, once they are back in the Wild Area, with the sounds of pokemon rustling around them. 

This is how she arrives at Motostoke at dawn: with blood crusting her ears and her clothes torn and muddy, clutching her sleeping grookey in her arms. The nurse takes one look at her pokemon and carries them away, and then another one ushers her into a room to wait for a doctor.

She sighs and mentally reviews her wallet. She had started this journey with a healthy sum of money from her savings in Hoenn, and Sonia had slipped in some more in her packed bag. But while pokemon centres in Galar were free, the cost for a human doctor was prohibitive. (Another reason to miss Hoenn.) She needs to sell those rookidees that she’d caught, and hope she can get a good price out of them, stock up on more potions and balls, and replace her clothes. 

She pulls out her phone and checks her emails for the first time since getting to Galar. 

One from the League Challenge officials, informing her that she had to check into Budew Drop Inn tonight and that the Opening Ceremony was for the next day. One from her parents, worried. Another from Sapphire and Ruby, also worried. Another two emails from her parents, each one increasingly short and terse. She replies each one quickly to confirm that she is safe and alive. 

The doctor comes in. She expects him to use powdered chansey eggs on her ears after cleaning off the blood, but instead he has in his hands a powdered puff that looks like it belongs in Sonia’s vanity.

“What is that?”

“Oh, ribomee powder puff.” He dabs it gently on her ear, and the ringing stops. Another dab, and the soreness begins to fade gently. “Are you injured anywhere else?” 

Her elbows and knuckles are scraped bloody, she's fairly sure she has a bruise coming up her right knee. He has not even bothered to wipe off her blood. She is starting to suspect, despite the coat, that he is not even a doctor. “No.” 

When she heads to the counter to collect all her pokemon, she braces herself for the bill. 

“We’ll add it to your tab,” the receptionist says simply.

“What tab?” 

“Your tab as a league challenger. For your sponsors to pay off.”

She checks her account on her trainer account - and there it is, Trainer Victoria, endorsed by Champion Leon and sponsored by Macro Cosmos. Fuck fuck fuck. 

“I’ll pay for it upfront,” she snaps to the receptionist. As expected, it cleans out her wallet.

 

She heads to Budew Drop Inn, wanting a shower and to sleep for the next twenty-four hours. She can afford the shower, but she needs to sell off the rookidees. She supposes she could also try to sell the TRs to any up and coming trainers as well. And she is getting her own ribomee - she might not be a doctor but she can bloody well dab at her own injuries with a powder puff.

She is so tired she almost runs into Hop and Sonia in the hotel lobby. 

“Gloria!” Sonia turns around and gives her a hug, unmindful of her filth. “You’re here!”

Sonia has her hair curled and is looking far brighter than when Gloria last saw her. 

"Hop dragged me out of the house, and you were right, getting out of there was exactly what I needed. We got in last night by train." 

Guilt. Gloria should have done the same, instead of her half-hearted insistence that Sonia join her. 

"You look like something the wooloo stepped in," Hop says as he eyes her from bedraggled head to toe.  

"Why, thank you Hop, it's lovely to see you too." Gloria regrets the sarcasm the second the words leave her mouth. It is good to see him, and he at least looks less angry than the last time. Guilt and gratitude wrestle in her stomach. It is not a good combination. 

"I'm serious, Ria." She is a little startled to hear him using her old nickname. No one has called her that since she left Galar. "You alright?"

"I'm fine," she says. "Just spent the night in the Wild Area, nothing I can't handle. Now if you'll excuse me, I really need a shower." 

At the receptionist, she hands over her trainer ID and is informed that the Delexue suite is awaiting her, courtesy of her sponsor Marco Cosmos - Look at you darling, you must be someone to watch, aren't you, already with a sponsor? the receptionist coos and she tells her that she will take the Standard Single, yes she is sure, thank you very much. 

The bed takes up almost the whole room, but it is clean and functional. She scrubs the grime off, dresses in her other set of clean clothes and downs a whole pot of shitty hotel coffee. Tempo does not seem inclined to fall asleep, so she lets him stay on her shoulders instead of resting in his pokeball. 

In the end, she sells the whole batch of rookidees to a woman hanging around outside the Corvicab company who claims to be a collector. She believes it when the lady releases every one of them and allows them to settle all over her body, not minding the absolute certainty that she would be shat on. The TRs she sells to a vintage shop, and she is left with enough money for a few days at the inn, and for new supplies. She stops by a clothing store and heads straight to the sales rack, pulling out a new set of clothes to replace the ones that got torn. 

(She can't help but eye the dresses that they have and sighs. It would be irresponsible to spend her money on something so frivolous, especially when she is just starting the challenge.)  

The caffeine is still buzzing in her veins, so she heads to a cafe for breakfast. There is one just outside of the clothing store, the proprietor flipping the sign at the door to read "open” as she crosses the street to it. 

He looks up when she walks in and beams. “Well, good morning to you, miss. Care for a battle?” 

He explains the rules of the battle cafe, and she thinks - what the hell, why not. 

He whips out a swirlix. Tempo uses his leech seed, and this time, they try a close combat strategy - branch poke instead of vine whip. She's pleased to note that he seems to have gained some muscle. Some more training and he will be close to evolution. 

A few minutes after, the proprietor yields, and allows the swirlix to clamber into his arms. "Good battle!" he beams. "You've got a good bond with your pokemon. What will it be for you?"

"Something without caffeine, please." 

He plonks down a plate of Lavaridge cookies and a cold glass of moomoo milk. She looks up at him in astonishment. 

"You've got a bit of a Hoenn accent," he says, winking. "You spend much time there?" 

"Almost half of my life," she says. Tempo sniffs at the cookies but does not reach for one until she hands it to him. She smiles at his manners, the almost dainty way he clutches at the cookie with both hands and nibbles at it. 

"Back for good now?" 

"I'm here for the gym challenge. Didn't feel right not doing it in my childhood home, you know?" 

It's not a lie, not really, and it sounds good. He nods sagely. 

"Well, if you continue keeping up with what I saw, you'll do a great job!"

"Any tips on the challenge?" she asks, trying to keep her voice casual. She's almost certain she's caught up with the latest updates - Gordie has taken over his mother's gym, while she now plays for the minor league, ghost-type Allister ran in the major league for a bit but pulled out, and his older sister Bea took over - but it never hurts to ask.

"Ignore the press," the man says, his voice very serious. "I've seen one too many trainers burn out, not for lack of talent but because they're like a sharpedo with blood for a good story. The money's good, but go over the fine print of the contract before you sign on to an endorsement deal, you don't want to be turning up at a gym advertising something like - " 

She never finds out what they advertise though, as the door opens and two men step in.

"What wisdom are you dispensing now, Robert san?" The Hoenn accented voice is fond, despite the teasing words. 

She turns - and there is Kabu in shorts and a jersey, looking like he'd just finished a run. With him is another man, taller and thinner, with a head of thinning grey hair. His sallow face looks familiar. 

Robert chuckles. "And what will it be for you two gentlemen?" 

"Lavaridge cookies, if you have them please, and two coffees." 

"I'm sorry, but I just gave my last batch of cookies to this young lady over here. She's from Hoenn too, you know!" 

If Gloria had not been watching the second man so closely, she would have missed completely the way the second man stiffens at this. 

"Is that so?" Kabu asks evenly. "Well that's too bad then, we can come back another time." 

Gloria gestures at the plate in front of her. "If you don't mind, my grookey's had one, but you can have the rest." 

"Oh we couldn't impose -  "

"It's not an imposition, but I would be honoured to share my food with you, Kabu dono," she says in Imperial, bowing slightly while still keeping a close eye on the other man. She keeps her own shoulders relaxed, trying to ensure her own tension is not picked up by Tempo. 

"Girl's a gym challenger, Kabu!" Robert calls from the counter, already mixing up his coffees. 

"Is that so?" Kabu says again. He nods at Gloria and seats himself in the chair opposite her. 

"I'll meet you back at the apartment once you're done with your gym leader duties," the other man says. 

There is no way she can take a discreet photo of him while he walks away, not with Kabu examining her so closely. She pushes the plate to him and gestures, and the cafe proprietor sets down the cup of coffee on the table. 

"Thank you," he says, also in Imperial. "Please, help yourself as well. Did you grow up in Hoenn?" 

"I'm originally from Galar, but my family moved to Lavaridge about six years ago."

Kabu smiles, and all the earlier tension disappears. "I was from Lavaridge too, before." 

She remembers reading about this. "Isn't Flannery your niece?" 

"That's right." He looks every inch a proud uncle now. "Her gym's doing well, I hear."

"Oh yes, she's an extremely popular leader as well." She pauses and takes a cookie from the plate, passing it to Tempo and says as casually as she can "She was the one who got me an internship with Sapphire Birch." 

And there is that tension again, the slight deepening of lines around his face even as his expression remains neutral, as though he is holding his face very still. "I have heard wonderful things about that prodigy from my niece. You are lucky to have such a wonderful mentor." 

"The Galar region will have its own challenges, I am sure." 

"Indeed." He swallows the last of his coffee, places a bill on the table and stands. "Good luck on your Gym Challenge, trainer." He nods at Robert and then leaves the cafe. 

It may still be early morning in Galar, but it is late afternoon in Hoenn. She types a quick email to Sapphire. 

Just saw someone from Hoenn who looks familiar. Couldn't get a photo, but he's tall, thin, face looks like its permanently sucking lemons.

Sapphire sends a photo immediately, 

Was it this guy? 

It is him - his cheekbones slightly less prominent, his hair a flaming red. She recognises the uniform before she realises who she is looking at. 

Maxie, from Team Magma.

Chapter Text

One more stop before she can sleep. She will deal with the fact that Kabu is harbouring an internationally known criminal after. 

She is outside the Motostoke stadium just before it opens, and is the first in to register at the counter. 

"Pokemon Trainer Victoria?" the receptionist asks. "What number will you pick?" 

If she is going to do this, she might as well do it right. 

"Fourteen," she says. 

 

By the time Gloria is back at her room, the caffeine buzz has long worn off. She crashes on the bed immediately. It is late afternoon when her alarm goes off, which she snoozes four times before she finally drags herself out of bed and into the shower. Padding out of the bathroom, she pulls on her new challenger uniform. 

“Room service,” someone calls from outside her hotel room. 

Gloria opens the door. “I didn’t order any - “ She is shoved aside, and a whole team of people are in, squeezing out all the oxygen in her room. Her hand immediately goes for Tempo’s pokeball at her waist. 

“No need for that, we’re your styling team, darling.” The speaker is smiling with perfect white teeth that does not crinkle their eyes, and has hair that looks like a Galarian ponyta's mane. 

Gloria's hand does not move away from her pokeballs. "I wasn't aware I had one," she says. "Or that it's part of the gym challenger package." 

"Oh no, darling, this is a special privilege, only for the promising trainers," the speaker coos. "I'm Alex, and we're here to make sure you're ready for any press interviews after the ceremony." They pat the chair in front of the vanity. "Sit! We don't have much time." 

Gloria does not move. "Promising trainers?" 

The other three who had come in - all of indeterminate gender, in as many colours as a cafe full of alcremie -  are already setting up makeup, hairdryers and other instruments.  

"Oh yes, you're the one endorsed by the champion himself, aren't you? Leon hasn't endorsed anyone in years, so you must be something special. Now," and their voice change from its breathy high-pitch to something more threatening. "Sit.

Gloria sits. 

In an hour, they have blow-dried her hair, sprayed it with multiple products, waxed her legs - you'll be wearing shorts as your gym challenge uniform and you don't want that on cameras do you? - plucked and shaped her brows and her fingernails. They have also put a lot of product on her face, which, mercifully, still looks like her face. 

"I suppose it'll do," Alex muses. "Grow your hair out next time, love, or maybe we'll put in some extensions. You'll look cute as a ginger. Toodles!" 

Finally alone again, Gloria pulls on the uniform and looks at herself in the mirror. 

Gotta look good, she'd said to Sonia before. She did now – a clean, waxed, polished version of her usual self. She wonders if it is a betrayal that she does not hate it. And that she really wants to know what tinted lip balm they'd used on her. 

Stupid, she thinks. Her pride had let her refuse the medical treatment, the free hotel room, but it is the pretty girly things that get to her. What kind of a cliche is she? 

Gloria checks her watch. She runs out of the door. 

 

They've done this enough that they know the other's ticks. Like how, if Raihan licks a stripe up Piers' neck the smaller man will shiver and clutch him tighter. Or just the right way to cradle his balls. Raihan can do all this with his eyes shut. 

He is trying to not think of purple hair and tanned skin. Of how Leon's hand felt in his when he kicked his arse at the exhibition match just hours ago. Or of the way Leon had eyed that girl trainer they had met in the Wild Area the other day. 

"Rai. Open your eyes."

He grunts and sucks another bruise on Piers’ collarbone. 

She had been pretty, sure, but there are plenty of other pretty girls out there. Why this one? When did it happen? How has he never heard of her? 

He feels himself being shoved off. Despite how skinny he is, Piers can be surprisingly strong. 

"You’re pining. Again. It’s been what, years? You need to learn how to stop."

"Shut the fuck up."

"Rai, I'm saying this because I’m - "

"What do you know about pining?" Raihan is feeling especially vicious tonight. "You write your songs and you just make money off making people feel." 

There is a loud crack. Heat blooming on Raihan's skin. He thinks there might actually be a mark. 

Piers straightens from his usual slump. Raihan had forgotten that they are almost the same height. 

"Try to be less of an asshole next time I see you."

No, don't - Apologies rise up Raihan's lips but do not make their way out. Piers slams the door on the way out. Raihan drags himself into the shower and finishes off there, still trying to not think of Leon and hating himself the whole time. 

 

Hop is in the locker room, pretending to himself that he is not looking for Gloria.

He was still angry at her. He tells himself he is angry at Lee too, but he more than anything, he hates Gloria for being the one to poke the beedrill's nest. Sure, she got her confession from his brother but now he is the one who has to sit with the knowledge that his family has been lying to him for years. 

A part of him says that he is not being fair. They had kept up an email correspondence over the years, and she had for years, tried to tell him that at least something is up.. He'd gone over the messages right after she had left his house in Postwick, and realised that whenever she had questioned his version of the truth, he had shut her down immediately.

(Another part of him says screw fairness. He does not know what to do with the truth now when he looks at his mother and wonders at how she had lied to him. If the psychiatrists that they had sent him to had known. How can he go home now despite all the daily texts from his mother and nan.)

(He can almost understand why Lee stayed away.)

And still, all that rage fell away when Gloria walked through the hotel lobby, bloodied and covered in dirt. He had been worried. He is worried about her. 

Yet another piece of knowledge he does not know what to do with. 

There are about thirty challengers crowded together in the large locker room. Some are already clustering up in their own groups, probably graduates from the same town. He recognises the one girl standing in the corner by herself in a pink dress and a black leather jacket. Marnie - the little sister of the Spikemuth gym leader. She'd blazed her way through the gym challenge a few years back - then crashed out at the last minute. Stress, the papers had said. Then she'd gotten herself a spot at the Spikemuth gym as a trainer the last few years and had been known to be the reason why many challengers quit before even reaching Piers. The look in her eyes terrifies him - she looks like she has a few axes to grind. 

There's another girl in a bright pink - or is it purple? He's shit with colours - puffy coat standing by herself - pretty eyes and small delicate features, her silver curly hair as soft and inviting as wooloo fur. 

At that moment, Gloria enters the locker room and looks around. Their eyes meet, and before she can walk over to him to hear more apologies he does not know what to do with, he moves to the girl in the pink coat.

"How much longer do you think they're going to make us wait here?" Hop asks, smiling. 

The girl looks at him, surprise rounding the sharp lines of her face. Then her mouth twists into a sneer. "The Chairman is an important man and will make us wait as long as he deems necessary. And you should learn not to speak to your betters, peon." 

Hop's taken aback - her voice is much deeper than he'd expected. And then it clicks. 

"You're a guy!

"So you lack manners, and a brain," Pink coat sniffs. "Get away from me before you contaminate me more with your idiocy." 

Before Hop can come up with any kind of response to that - Rude isn't harsh enough and Sod off doesn't feel right either - one of the Marcos Cosmos employees comes into the room. 

"Come on challengers, file out into the pitch," he yells, clapping his hands. The lights glint off his shades and Hop wonders why they're always wearing them. 

He follows the streaming crowd, keeping as much distance away from Gloria as he can. 

 

Raihan is late to the opening ceremony. Piers had left a bruise on his cheek, and he'd spent ten minutes icing it, and another ten covering it up with makeup. He had also texted Piers a hundred apologies, but there had not been a response. Not that he’d expected one. 

"Where's Piers?" Oleanna asks, lips pursed. 

He shrugs, tries to look surprised that she is asking him about his whereabouts. She clicks her tongue, looking thoroughly unconvinced, and sends a quick message on her rotom. 

Nessa shoots him a worried look, but there isn't time to talk. He wouldn't say anything anyway. 

The gym leaders stride onto the field and meet their challengers. 

When Gloria walks out into the stadium, her first thought is that she would rather be in the Wild Area. 

The high decibel noise is certainly similar. Music blares from the speakers, and up in the stands, the crowd probably has to yell to hear each other. Which of course results in more yelling. 

You chose this, she reminds herself. She does not let herself flinch.

The challengers mill around the field, watching their own astonished faces projected on the big screen by floating rotom cameras. She can't help but feel like a pokemon in a zoo, with the spectators on the other side of a cage wondering what tricks she will eventually perform. 

Then the music changes and the crowd goes quiet. 

The gym leaders step out. 

The stadium explodes in cheers. 

She recognises all of them, of course. Kabu looks almost exactly as he did this morning - she wonders how much of his wardrobe is made out of exercise gear. Raihan looks like he is in his element - a far cry from the sheepish, almost embarrassed man she saw in the Wild Area before - striding onto the pitch ever so casually, but in a way that makes sure every one of his good angles is captured on the screen. 

Opal stands out like a sore thumb amongst the other leaders - and not just because she was wearing pink. She is the only gym leader who does not look artfully primped and plucked to perfection. Instead, she looks frail, leaning heavily onto her cane, her hunch more prominent than ever. 

They stopped in the centering of the stadium and waved at the cameras.

"Galar, your gym leaders!" the emcee announced. More cheers. Gloria makes a note to pick up earplugs before the next gym battle. 

"And this year's challengers!" 

The cameras move to focus on the challengers. Profiles of individual trainers are then flashed up on the screen - she sees Hop's, recognises Marnie's from Spikemuth. Bede, a trainer that had been seen as promising a couple of years back, but who had withdrawn at the last moment.  

"In order to compete in the championship cup, these trainers have to obtain obtain eight badges in the next four months! You'll find the profiles of each of the challengers and their previous achievements on your phones! Don’t forget to answer the poll on which of the challengers you'd like to hear more out of!" 

It takes only a minute, and the poll's results are up on the screen. She's unsurprised to see Hop's name at the top - the champion's little brother would of course attract a lot of curiosity. Trainer Victoria follows after, then Marnie, and Bede. 

"We've heard you, Galar! There'll be a meet and greet held outside with the gym leaders for some lucky guests. And don't forget to look out for the upcoming exclusive interviews with the new challengers!" 

 

She is brought to a room by another sunglasses-wearing Macro Cosmos employee, and the camera flashes begin the second she enters the room. 

Smile. She reminds herself of every tip she has ever read about charisma. Be personable, but not self-centred. Confident, but not arrogant. Laugh. 

The questions are fired faster than bullet seeds. 

"Trainer Victoria! Why choose to come to Galar?" 

"Do you think the Galar region will be easier than Hoenn?" 

"You have to rebuild your team - how much do you think that will set you back?” 

Questions that she has prepared for. That her family moved away from Galar a very long time ago but she has always wanted to come back. Her starter is a grookey. She will be rebuilding her team but she will not be sharing details on that one yet. No, she did not drop out of the Hoenn League because the Elite Four there were too tough - but because she was afraid that she would never come home if she stayed there too long - that one earns her sympathetic awws from the press. 

And finally - 

"Trainer Victoria! Did you pick your trainer nickname because of your brother?" 

She feels the blood leave her face as the reporter sticks the microphone up at her face. 

She had known it was a possibility that some intrepid reporter would do some digging about her past. But she hadn’t expected it so soon. 

She keeps a smile firmly plastered on her face as she glances out of the window of the room, back out at the stadium, where the other challengers are mingling with the other gym leaders. And of course, Chairman Rose is there in his expensive grey suit, a benign smile on his face. For a moment, she thinks he turns to her and winks. 

Bastard. 

She turns back to the microphone. “Yes,” she says. “And I picked my challenger number for him as well. He never got to live past fourteen, and would have wanted to see me do this.”

They are shouting now. More questions. Camera flashes. She smiles. 

 

She does not know how many hours she spends with the reporters. When she can finally find a way to exit gracefully - the press Gloria, remember, they all have to love you - and then holes herself up in a toilet while the other less promising gym challengers are at the Budew Inn's afterparty. 

She will not think of Victor. Not now. Not in front of the mandibuzzes. 

When she finally feels less like a yamask, she comes out of the bathroom and runs face first into something that feels like a wall. 

"Oof," it says. "You okay?" 

Gloria looks up, and up, and up. She isn't short by most standards, but she feels like a ten-year-old again right now. 

"Gym leader Raihan," she says - and thank fuck her voice is steady - though she winces at how formal she sounds. 

He snorts. "Yeah, no one calls me that." He puts his hands on his hips as he looks down, blue eyes narrowing as he focuses on her. 

“So what do they usually call you then?” she asks, realising now that she is not seething with rage at Leon, how violently attractive he is. 

He grins, and there is more than a hint of fang in that mouth. “God would be a good one.” She isn’t sure but did he just wink at her? Is he actually flirting with her? 

"How's everything been, Miss Not-Secret-Girlfriend? Still up to the challenge?" 

"You know, if you keep that up, Leon might actually figure out that you're jealous." 

He looks her up and down with hooded eyes and an expression she can't misinterpret. "And why should he be jealous if I've got you for the night?" 

Oh. This was not how she thought her day would go. 

"Isn't it a problem for you if he finds out?" 

Raihan shrugs so casually she almost believes him. Almost. 

"Why would it be a problem if he doesn't care?" 

Gloria thinks about it. It has been a while - a very long while a part of her yells at her to not be stupid. Raihan is clearly looking for something casual. Or rather, he is clearly looking for a distraction. It could be a bottle of alcohol, drugs, a whole orgy of willing fans, but he just happened to come across her first.

(This is supposed to be demeaning, a part of her says. Casual sex is casual sex but not if he's imagining someone else the whole time.)

(Look at that mouth, another part of her argues.) 

(Also, a third part of her says snidely, Leon would care very much.) 

"Isn't there some kind of conflict of interest if you sleep with a challenger?" 

He smiles like he knows he has already won. "We'll just be taking part in the grand tradition of getting laid after a long boring opening ceremony. You can imagine what the other trainers are doing in their sponsored hotel rooms before they spend weeks freezing in the Wild Area." 

He is already leaning down toward her so she could probably kiss him if she reached. He is exactly the kind of arrogant where she does not have to think, where everything in bed will probably feel like a competition. (That is fine. She doesn't need tenderness.)

There will be consequences to this. One does not simply start the gym challenge by frotting with one of the gym leaders, no less. 

But right now, Gloria finds she really can't bring herself to care. 

Chapter Text

Of course, gym leaders are put up in a much fancier hotel than the Budew Drop Inn. 

They are silent all the way up to his room - the suite on the second-highest floor of the building. She assumes Leon is in the penthouse. A part of her stomach twists savagely thinking about how she and Raihan might be fucking just right under the champion as he sleeps. 

(She assumes Leon is going back to his room alone. She knows he is, he is far too uptight to have any kind of a random hook up.) 

The door shuts behind her and Raihan's lips are crashing onto hers. She opens her mouth to gasp and he is licking the insides of her mouth with a kind of intensity that - okay, yes that does feel good. Then, probably tired of leaning down to her height, he hoists her up, gripping her ass tightly as he nudges her legs to wrap around his waist. 

He pauses, noting her non-reaction. "Changed your mind, princess?" 

His tone is mocking, and there's something about princess that makes her competitiveness kick in. Her legs tighten around his waist and she grinds herself against him hard - once, twice - and ah, there he is. 

"No." She clutches his shoulders as she sinks her teeth into his ear. He makes a choked noise that goes straight between her legs. "Unless you’re now thinking this is all a bad idea?" 

"Fuck," is all he says before he kisses her again, all sharp teeth and insistent tongue.

This time, she kisses him back hard while continuing to grind up against him. The thin material of his loose shorts do absolutely nothing to hide his erection. Her hands creep up his shirt, scrambling against stupidly smooth skin and hard muscle. She expects his hands to leave bruises against her ass in the morning and finds that she likes the thought. 

Finally he breaks away panting and adjusts his hold on her. “Hold on,” he mutters, and carries her over to the bedroom, cursing while he fumbles with the light switch. She feels herself deposited on the bed, bouncing for a second, and then hands are fumbling at her jeans.

"Off," he growls. 

(Gloria has had angry sex before but there is just something about it this time that makes every one of her muscles clench, and they haven't even done anything much more than kiss. He is going to ruin her, she realises, but she can't bring herself to stop now.)

She tugs her shirt off her head and the second she starts pulling her jeans down her hips, he yanks them off, leaving her in her underwear. 

She pulls his shorts down to his knees and gets him to step out of them and now he is just in his boxers. She wouldn't have been surprised if they were in the dragon gym colours, or if they had Marcos Cosmos logos emblazoned on them, but is strangely relieved to find they are a plain, inoffensive grey.

"Your shirt," she says, and he takes it off obediently. 

She waits for him to kiss her again but he instead, he reaches down to lick the scar that slashes along her biceps. 

"Oh." It is such a strange thing to say in bed, but she hadn't been expecting that. Her arms are a blotchy mess of tan lines - a natural consequence of working under Professor Birch as it means camping out in the wild for days, sometimes without moving for hours as she observes pokemon behaviour. And of course, her skin is littered with all manner of scars and freckles and blemishes. A few more weeks in the wild and doubtless she will have acne sprouting on her face. 

She has learned not to care, to take pride in her body. It is strong and it serves her well. But next to Raihan's flawless skin and his sculpted muscles - body no doubt a result of a personal trainer and dietician and hours spent at the gym each day - she feels diminished. Like a mortal, next to a god. 

It doesn't help that he's stopped touching her. 

Why has he stopped touching her?

Her cheeks grow hot as reaches for her shirt. Stupid, she thinks, wondering if she means herself or him. But he has been the one to proposition her, she had hardly flung herself at him and - 

"What?" He grabs her wrist to stop her. 

"I think princess suits you better than me," she says lightly, trying to sound like she's teasing. 

To her surprise, he flushes a deep scarlet, then ducks to kiss the lightning scar that spider webs along her right arm. 

"You aren't ashamed, are you, princess?" He presses his lips to her skin again, and why is he suddenly so soft? something in her chest clenches. 

She reaches for his dick through his boxers and is simultaneously relieved and afraid to find it. Arcecus, how are they going to make this fit? She is satisfied to hear him give a hiss, followed by him violently against her palm. Yes. This is what it should be. 

"I thought you were going to fuck me," she says.  

"I will," he promises, reaching for the clasps of her bra. He takes it off easily - of course he would know how it's done. He must have slept with hundreds of challengers and fans before, she reminds herself. She is nothing but a distraction. 

It would be easier to remember if he weren't so damned tender with her.

"So why are you slowing down?" 

He laughs and presses another kiss to her skin. No teeth this time. "We have all night, princess." 

She gives a hard pointed stroke, trying to speed him up, then pulls his boxers down and yes, he is an angry red and purple, pointed directly at her. She reaches for his sweatband and tosses it to the side. His dreads come tumbling down and it is not fair that he looks this good. She realises she has said it out loud when he smiles. An actual smile, and not a smirk.

"But look at you," he murmurs. "You're an actual warrior." 

She laughs, she can't help it. "And you're the mighty Raihan, the dragon of Hammerlocke. You're somebody."

He shakes his head and dips his hand lower, pressing at the cleft between her legs. As expected, her underwear is soaked through. 

"We're just pretty figures fighting in a fancy gym for Rose's approval," he says. "All our trainer scars were lasered off once we get this job, we have facials and waxing and surgeries to look the way we are. We aren't - " He pulls aside her underwear to sink two fingers into her folds and they both moan at the same time. "We aren't real like you."  He pumps a third finger in and begins to move. It burns at first, but then becomes a pleasant sort of ache. It has been such a long time. 

"So all I need to do to get laid while in Galar is to show off my scars while here?" she asks, trying to ignore how breathy she sounds now. "Noted."

"Any trainer with brains would be afraid of you. Would know that you're amazing."

"For all you know, I'm just incredibly clumsy and really bad at handling pokemon." 

He touches the scar on her left arm. "How did you get this?" 

"Razor leaf from a wild tropius I was trying to catch. Almost tore my whole arm off.” 

“Did you catch it?”

“Of course.” 

He hums and traces the faint claw marks on her shoulder with one hand, the other one still working at her cunt. "And this?" 

It is very hard to concentrate. "My salamance got a little too happy during dinner." 

"You have a salamance?" Raihan is almost vibrating with excitement now. 

She glares at him and pulls his hand from her cunt. It immediately clenches at his absence. 

"You know, I thought the point to this hook up would be to avoid the whole getting to know each other thing," she snaps. "Otherwise, I would have made you buy me dinner. And clarified first the deal between you and Leon before we start." 

"Okay, okay, I'll stop." He climbs over her and has an expression that is more smile than smirk on his face. (He has no right to look at her so sweetly while his cock is rock hard against her thigh.) "We can talk after."

Before she can ask what he means by talk, he kisses her ferociously, as though he'd like nothing better than to devour her whole. 

Or maybe she is just imagining things. 

But it doesn't matter, he is nudging himself between her legs, and despite the earlier preparation and the fact that she can fill herself dripping onto her thighs, she is still nervous. 

"Ready?" he asks. 

She nods. 

He smiles and pushes in, achingly slow. She can't help but be annoyed. 

"No, don't, just go all the way in - " 

"Are you sure?" he asks. She nods. He snaps his hips and she hisses. Yes, it burns. 

"Keep going," she says to him when he looks down at her, worried. He picks up a rhythm. The stinging eventually fades and - yes. Oh yes. 

She reaches up to wrap hands around his neck and legs around his hips and they both cry out as he sinks even deeper. "Fuck," he breathes. 

She bites the spot where his shoulders meet his neck and feels his hips stutter. “Harder.” 

He is. He does. 

 

"I've never been able to stop thinking of Leon during sex before,” he admits after. He is still examining every one of the scars on her body, tracing every one of the lines. 

"To be clear, you do know Leon and I have never dated right?" 

He stares at her and is not even hiding his relief. "Thank fuck," he says, as he leans down to shower kisses on her breasts.

 

"Who are you, Pokemon Trainer Victoria?" he asks. 

She supposes she can answer the question. It's going to be in the papers anyway. Probably already is. 

"Victoria's my trainer nickname," she says, running a finger across his chest, smiling as he shivers. "They're not that popular here but you know how Gary Oak went with Blue when he did his challenge? Yeah.

“My family moved away after... Well, I was fourteen." She shakes her head and tries to banish Victor's ghost from the bed. She always sees him as fourteen, and afraid of talking to girls. "Was working on the Hoenn gym challenge before I came here," she said. "Graduated, worked under Sapphire Birch for a bit, went around the gyms - " 

"Wait, as in Professor Sapphire Birch?" He sits up and stares at her wide-eyed. "The one who completed the Hoenn gym challenge in eighty days and dealt with two crime syndicates in that time? That Sapphire?" 

"That's the one." She smiles, glad to know her mentor’s fame has spread to Galar. 

“How many badges did you win in Hoenn?” His teeth nip at her hips, and she feels rather than see his smile when she jerks upwards. 

“Eight.” 

He swears. “Is Steven Stone still the champion there?”

“Mmm. Wallace took over for a bit, then Sapphire, and it's back to Steven. We see him every once in a while for dinner on Sundays.” 

"Why are you even here?” She wishes she could take out her phone to snap a photo of his face. "You could have become a Hoenn champion. Hung out with all your cool friends. Why come back to this shit show?" 

She wants to tell him. She really does. But being tender and being honest are very different things, something she has long learnt from her parents. 

"Unfinished business," she says instead, then reach for him. He stops asking questions after that. 

 

"This did not go the way I thought it would go," she says after he climbs out of the bed to fetch her a glass of water. Unasked too. He's certainly a lot sweeter than he looks.

"How did you think it would go?" 

She swallows a mouthful of water and looks at him. "Pegged you for a wham, bam, thank you ma’am, kind of person, to be honest." 

He laughs. It sounds guilty. 

"To be honest, that's exactly what I intended this to be like too." 

She raises an eyebrow. "So what changed? You got to know how I got my scars?" 

He takes the glass from her hands and sets it by the bedside, then leans to kiss her. "You just reminded me that there's more to life than this shitshow." 

She hums, opens her mouth and legs and lets him settle on top of her. He really has quite a refractory period. 

"When was the last time you left your gym, and just wandered around the routes for a week?" 

He laughs, but it is not a happy sound."Never." 

"The Hoenn gym leaders shut the gyms during off-seasons and take vacations." She knows she is nagging, but really, she is horrified. 

"We always have shit to do, endorsement deals to sign, ads to model for, Rose to - " He pauses as he lines himself up against her entrance. "Do you really want to talk about this now?" 

"Good point." 

 

“So what’s with you and Leon?”

He sighs, and stares up at the ceiling. There is a lot of woe in that sigh. “Nothing,” he says. 

“Uh huh.” 

She can almost hear the klinks in his brain turning, so she waits. When he finally speaks, his words sound like they are coming from years away. "I've always followed him, you know? We did the league challenge together, we camped out for months in the Wild Area together, he won, I became a gym leader. Then he said something in the press one day about how I was his greatest rival and they just ate it up. It's been like that since. I always thought if I was good enough, he would see me someday. Really see me, and not just as the support figure who makes him look good on screen.” He sighs again, and if Gloria were more romantic, she would think – never mind what she would think. 

There are many things she wants to say. Her first instinct is to tell him what Leon is really like (A wanker without any sense of style. A liar. A self-obsessed prat who cannot even be trusted with his brother. She is so sick of the world worshipping his every step.) The next thing she wants to do is kiss away the lines at his brow. (She has seen his battles. He is not just a support figure.) 

Instead, she says, “I don’t think Steven Stone and Wallace have ever thought about fucking each other.” 

He turns to her slowly and she wonders if she should begin to look for her clothes. 

“You haven’t been on the right side of the internet then,” he says. When he laughs, his whole face is transformed. 

 

She’s drifting off to sleep when she hears that unmistakable click of a camera. She’s awake instantly. 

“Delete that.” 

He’s already got guilt on his face, denial on his lips. She lunges for his phone but his arms are far too long. 

“Delete that now.

“I’m not going to post it,” he protests. 

She grabs the glass of water by the side of the bed - the one he had fetched for her without her asking (the one that made her think that he was sweet) - and throws the water at his phone. It sparks in his hands, and he drops it immediately. She can only hope that it wasn’t immediately saved onto a cloud somewhere. 

"What the fuck? That was completely unnecessary!" 

"Yeah, like taking a photo of me asleep?" She flings the glass at his face. He dodges it, and it breaks against the wall with a satisfying crash. 

She starts looking for her clothes and pulls them on. Checks her bag to find that all her pokeballs are still there. 

“I thought you were different,” she says. She wishes she could have said something wittier, something more devastating. But it is all she can think of at that moment. She makes sure to slam the door on her way out. 

It is almost four in the morning when she gets back to her room in Budew Drop Inn, the receptionist counter mercifully empty. She does not need to run into anyone at this point, still smelling of sweat and spit. She can feel his semen crusted over on her skin. Eck. 

She wonders what he had been planning to do with that photo. Send it to Leon? To Rose? The press? 

In her room, she lets the bath fill up and then releases Seriyu inside of it. Orion and Tempo she releases on her bed, Orion immediately heading for the berries she leaves out. Tempo clambers towards her, pauses, and then sniffs, as though he'd expected her to have better taste. 

"Well, that makes the both of us disappointed in me," she says. 

She wipes herself down with a damp towel before getting into the bath, Seriyu nibbling at her skin. When she climbs out of the bath, Tempo hands her a dry towel, which she takes as a kind of forgiveness. She gets dressed, checks the room to see that she has packed all her things. 

"Come on," she mutters. She is sick of cities and people. 

In the lift, she has Tempo around her shoulders as he refuses to return to his pokeball, just wraps himself tight around her like he does not trust her to make her own decisions. Which, at this point, would be completely fair. 

Or he could just be trying to comfort her, a part of her tells herself. 

She can still remember how softly Raihan had traced her skin, and to her embarrassment, feels tears pricking at her eyes. 

It is ridiculous. After everything she has been through that this would be what she cries about. 

The lift door dings open and she realises she has never pressed the button for the ground floor. 

A girl in a pink dress and black leather jacket enters, a morpeko trailing behind her. She is understandably startled to see someone in the lift at five in the morning. 

"Headed down?" she asks and Gloria nods, not trusting herself to speak. The girl jabs at a button and the lift begins to move. 

"Hey, if uh, if anyone asks, yeh never saw me, yeah?" 

Her Spikemuth accent is thick and there is something familiar about her. Gloria concentrates on nodding, still feeling that this close to crying. 

“Ya alright?"

She nods. A choked sob comes out of her mouth. "Ignore me. It's been a long night - " 

"Hey, I get it. The press can be really shite. You're that trainer from Hoenn right?" 

(He had gotten her a glass of water and she had stupidly thought that meant had meant something.) 

"Yeah." She wipes her tears away and looks at the girl properly. Oh. "You're Marnie." 

"Yep. I know what it's like. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one who’s cried because of them." 

The lift doors open and they step out into the lobby. Mercifully, still empty.

Marnie heaves a sigh of relief. "Man I was worried that they would have followed me here. Anyway, don't let them idiot reporters get ya down, get ya head into the match!" 

"It wasn't the press," Gloria mumbles. 

"Oh."

Gloria feels her face heat up, but she still feels the need to tell someone something. Not Sonia, who doesn’t need to hear her shit decisions. Definitely not Hop. "Boy thing,” she says. “Stupid." 

Marnie nods, but at least she doesn't make fun of her. 

"Hey, wanna head to the Wild Area together and camp out for a bit?" 

Gloria sniffles. "Sure." 

 

Chapter Text

He's an idiot. He's always known this. 

Vain, self-absorbed, more than a little selfish. Piers had every right to hit him, and he’d only gone to Gloria hoping to find out more about her and Leon. Then he’d decided sleeping with her was the best way to make Leon jealous. 

(He still can't forget the look on Gloria's face when she left.)  

He knew the exact moment everything changed - when she took off her shirt and he saw her skin. That was when a voice - maybe his rusted conscience - went off shrieking at his brain. This was not a groupie who just wanted bragging rights for sleeping with him, or a placeholder for Leon, it said. This was a trainer he should take seriously. He had never seen her on the field, but that voice shrieked at him, telling him she was an equal.  

(The relief when she said that she hadn't had anything to do with Leon. A part of him says it is because he doesn't want her to compare the two of them, and have him fall short again, not in this. Another part of him says that is not the case. He will examine that later.) 

He'd wanted another round, and breakfast in bed, and another round after that, and her number, and he'd then gone and fucked it all up. 

He sends a quick email off to his assistant with his laptop, where his mortally offended rotom is now inhabiting, instructing that he needs a new phone, and he wants it before he gets home. He leaves his room and heads to the train station to catch the first train to Hammerlocke, a part of him hoping that he might see Gloria there. 

No such luck. There are few other people on the platform when the train pulls up, and he does not see her amongst them.  

He curses his decision to take the train instead of a corvicab. Without a phone on him, he has nothing to do but think. 

He had woken up and there was a thought there, that she wouldn't want to do anything with him any longer he couldn't shake off. (Who would want him, after all, especially if Leon was in the picture.) Told himself that all he wanted was a photo to keep, to remember the moment. 

(That she had caught him does not excuse his behaviour. He knows it.)

At what point in the night had he started to fuck up? When he couldn't stop staring at Leon's mouth during their match? When he had called Piers over even when he'd known he shouldn't? When he decided to wait outside the bathroom he had seen Gloria duck into? 

He's a mess. He knows this and he knows he doesn't have any business wanting Leon or Gloria or Piers - they all have their own shit to deal with and don't deserve someone like him. (Piers has his hands full running two careers and taking care of his sister, Leon is Leon, and Gloria didn't relax a muscle until she fell asleep - the fact that he had noticed that is something else he will examine later.) 

He groans, covers his face in his hands and waits for his stop. 

 

"He did what?" Marnie shrieks. A few corvisquires glare at them and caw indignantly, unhappy about their morning peace disturbed. 

Gloria had just given her a quick rundown on what had happened the last night - omitting the fact that it had been Raihan and so Marnie will hopefully assume it was some other gym challenger. 

"Yeah." 

"Please tell me ya punched him. Or sicced your pokemon on him." 

"I wish." Her flight instincts at that point had kicked in and she only wanted to get out. In retrospect, she really should have just sent her pokemon after him. "I think I destroyed his phone though. Chucked a glass at him." 

"Eh. Good enough, I suppose." 

Orion soars in the sky above them. Marnie's morpeko and her grookey are wandering the grass around them, taking casual swipes at any wild pokemon unfortunate enough to come in their way. She makes a mental note to watch for the morpeko - it truly is a monster. She doesn’t doubt that Marnie will be in the Championships. 

“Was he at least good in the sack?”

Gloria sighs. “Unfortunately, yes.” 

“Urgh.” 

“Well, what about you?” Gloria asks, not wanting to think about how Raihan had really, really known what he was doing. “You seemed like you were running away from someone.” Gloria doubts it's something as trivial as a boy though. Marnie doesn't seem as stupid as she is.

It is Marnie’s turn to sigh. 

“Yeah. After I crashed out of my gym challenge a few years back, my bro’s gotten protective. He sent some of his gym trainers to take care of me, but they’ve been… a handful to say the least.” 

"What do you mean, like bursting into your room to give you a makeover? Orion, wing attack!" she calls, and the bird sweeps down to send a volley against a batch of roselias who had been resisting Grookey's branchpoke. She tossed a pokeball at the one with the brightest coloured flowers and pockets the pokeball. A roselia wouldn't make her championship team, but would likely be useful against Milo. 

"Nah. Although it would be nice if I could give them the makeovers." Marnie stares off into the distance, as though considering how this would go. She shakes her head after a moment. "They're just. They were causing trouble for some challengers who were talkin' to me yesterday. I think they got it in their heads that since I crashed out last time because the press didn't stop houndin' me, they're just going to stop everyone from speakin' to me." She rubs her elbow, still not looking at Gloria as she speaks. "Also they mean well, but they keep making a ruckus while cheerin' me on and I don't need that kinda pressure right now. I just want to do my own thing." She looks so small and sad and Gloria wants to hug her. 

"I think I get you. It's weird to me how much press attention the championships are here, compared to Hoenn." 

Marnie perks up. "What's Hoenn like?"

Gloria smiles for the first time in the morning and begins to tell her about the warm seas. 

 

It is morning. Sonia stands at the lobby of the Budew Drop Inn waiting for Hop so they can go get breakfast together. 

Gloria and Hop had been right. Being away from her apartment had helped clear her head. Her migraines weren't as bad anymore, and she realised that even if she couldn't focus on her notes, there were still pieces of Galarian history all around that she could examine. Like the bronze statue of the hero wielding the sword and shield. 

There had been something odd about the statue. She'd realised that yesterday as she had been talking to Gloria, but hadn't had the sense to write down whatever it was. It is gone now. She hopes it will come back. 

Where is Hop? She is antsy by herself, and she can feel a migraine setting in. Yes, the statue is definitely missing something - 

"Admiring the art?" A man in the hotel's uniform smiles down at her, breaking her concentration. 

"Yes," Sonia says, trying to smile, still chasing that stray thought down the drains. Something missing. Or someone missing? She can't be sure. 

He steps a little bit closer to her and clears his throat. "I'm a bit of an art lover myself." 

"That's nice," she says, still not quite looking at him. 

"This piece is quite valuable, you know. It was commissioned by Chairman Rose himself for the hotel lobby for its grand opening." 

He has her full attention now. 

"Chairman Rose commissioned this piece?" 

"Yes, completed about seven years ago when the hotel first opened by an up and coming sculptor. He has his own gallery now, here in Motostoke." 

Sonia twirls a finger in her hair and bats her lashes. "Where is this gallery?" 

 

Hop sees a familiar pink coat in front of the lift and groans internally. It's not too late to take the stairs, he supposed, but Pink Coat (Bede, he reminds himself, it's Trainer Bede) must have caught his reflection against the shiny doors of the lift and turns to face him. 

"Ah." His nose wrinkles. "It's you."

"Look, I'm sorry I mistook you for a girl yesterday - " 

"To be very clear," Bede says, enunciating each word as though he expects Hop to misunderstand him otherwise. "While you may be the Champion's brother and endorsed by him, that doesn't actually speak for your skill. In fact, I’d say it's more likely to look like cronyism." 

What the hell is this guy's problem? 

"Look, I don't know what I've done to offend you - "

"Your very existence offends me." Bede's nose wrinkles again. "You might think you're better than the rest of us just because you're the Champion's brother, but that doesn't mean you are." He pauses when the lift doors ding open. "I would say that I look forward to beating you at the Championships, but I doubt you would even get that far." 

He steps into the lift and the doors close, leaving Hop alone with his jaw hanging wide open. 

 

"Hop!" 

Sonia waves the man over when he emerges from the lift and pretends to not notice the crestfallen expression on the Budew Inn employee’s face. She frowns when she notices how upset he looks, almost bumping into a man walking into the lift. He had ignored Leon throughout the opening ceremony the night before, and politely changes the topic whenever his brother comes up in conversation. 

“Did something happen?” 

“No I - " He runs his hand through his hair, mussing up his ponytail, and then cursing. "Can we just get out of here?” 

“Sure.” Sonia gives the employee a wave and her brightest smile as they leave. They head to a cafe for crepes and tea, and she waits for him to speak, knowing that Hop can never stay silent for long. 

"There was this trainer," he finally says. "We met yesterday, and he's been a right arse from the start." 

Sonia stirs her tea, waiting for him to go on. 

"We met again at the lift," he mutters to his plate. "Said a lot of things." 

"Like what?" 

"That I won't make it to the championships. That I'm not Leon." He clenches his fists. "I've known for years that I'm not Leon. The things he said just made me think of all the stuff I would spout off as kid." 

Sonia giggles slightly at the memory. 

He looks at her with wide golden eyes and oh he truly looks like Leon, not the champion with the cocky grin practiced in front of a mirror for the cameras, but the Leon who would apologise after every win and offer to heal his opponent's pokemon. "Was I insufferable?" 

She laughs again. "Insufferable is a bit harsh.” 

“But I was rude.” 

“I won’t go that far. You were... energetic, as a child.”

Hop deflates. “A pompous ass you mean.” 

“Hop, you worshipped your brother. There’s nothing wrong with that.” 

He groans and covers his face with his hands, as though that will protect him from the onslaught of memories. "Didn't I go around telling everyone that I was going to be Champion? After I got my wooloo? A bloody wooloo?

She bites into her cheek, trying not to smile. "Yes, you did." 

"I thought - " He shakes his head. "My whole life, I wanted to be Leon. No," he corrects himself. "It wasn't good enough to be him, I needed to surpass him, because he did everything first. And I'm never going to do that now." 

"Hop - " 

"He's the youngest, and longest reigning champion, here and in most other regions." He ticks the items off his list. "He's popular, he's handsome, he's charismatic - " 

"Hop, why did you start the gym challenge?" Sonia asks. She does not know how to phrase this kindly, but she tries. "You know that you won't be beating any records, not now."

Silence. She wonders if her words had been too cruel. 

"I know. But I still feel like if I didn't try it at least once, no matter the outcome, I'd regret it more, y'know?" 

Sonia thinks of her own challenge, the nights spent alternating between freezing and dripping wet in the Wild Area, the camera flashes and stadium crowds in the day. The incessant noise, the speculation on when she was going to drop out. She hadn't known doubt until she joined the Gym Challenge, and she wonders what kind of person she would have been if only she'd stayed at home, instead of insisting that she join Leon on his adventure. 

Yes, she regrets all of it. But she cannot say this to Hop. 

"I understand," she lies. Let Hop keep his dreams a little longer. Life takes them all away anyway, one by one. 

 

The art gallery is shuttered. 

Hop does a quick search on the internet while Sonia tries to peer through the windows. The inside of the shop looks like it is covered on rubble, fragments of torsos and half-finished faces amongst the items. 

"Seems like the artist relocated to Ballonlea a couple of years back," Hop says, scanning through an article quickly. "City living got too much to him, I suppose."

"We'll pay a visit to him in Ballonlea then," Sonia says absently. 

Hop looks up at her slowly. "Do you mean when I'm there for the gym challenge?" 

"Yes?" Sonia blinks and then she realises he might not have wanted her along with him the whole time. She feels her face heat up. "Oh. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to - " 

"No, Sonia." Hop smiles. "I think I'll feel a lot better if you were here with me. Turffield?" 

Her answering smile hurts her cheeks to give. 

 

When Raihan finally gets to his apartment in Hammerlocke (it's really only been three hours, he knows he's being a drama queen, but it's been a really long three hours in his defence), his new phone is already in the mailbox, and with his last back up installed. Rotom automatically phases itself into the phone once he takes the device out of its package. He thumbs through the photo gallery - and oh, there she is. Rotom had backed everything up on the cloud a split second before he got splashed with water.

"Good reflexes," he murmurs to the pokemon, who makes a smug whirring sound. 

He glances at the photo again. She is beautiful, really, and at ease for the first time that night. It was why he impulsively took the photo in the first place. 

Focus, you moron. 

Right. He needs to apologise. He flicks through his contacts and calls Leon before he can stop himself. Leon picks up almost immediately.  

“Mate, it's been almost twelve hours since your last post. Did you get kidnapped or something?" 

Raihan laughs along with him, but a part of him glows realising that Leon paid that much attention to his social media activity, even if it is only to tease him. 

No. Focus. This isn't what he'd called about. 

"Phone got wet," he says. It isn't a lie. 

"Please tell me you didn't drop it in the toilet," Leon says, still laughing. Raihan can't bring himself to laugh along this time, still seeing the hurt on Gloria's face when she woke. 

"Actually, I wanted to ask for a favour."

" 'course, what's up?" 

"Do you have Gloria's number?" 

A very long pause. 

"Leon?" 

"Please tell me you didn't sleep with her," Leon finally says. 

"I didn't sleep with her," Raihan replies immediately. 

Another pause. 

"You're lying."

"You asked me to." 

Leon gives an aggravated sigh. “I swear to Arceus - “

“I fucked up, Lee,” Raihan cuts off what he knows will be a lecture. He really doesn't need it right now - he had his own playing in his brain for the entirety of his train ride. “I really fucked up. I just need her number to tell her I’m sorry.” 

Leon goes quiet again, for so long that Raihan is worried that he has hung up on him. 

“She’s dangerous,” he finally says. “You should stay away from her.”

Raihan laughs - it comes out more like a giggle. “Believe me, I know.” He doesn’t doubt that Gloria wouldn’t flinch at gutting him with the broken glass if she thought she could get away with it. “But it doesn’t change the fact that I fucked up.” 

Leon sighs again and then hangs up. Raihan’s mouth is dry and he wonders if he has lost another friend. (He never got round to asking Gloria last night about the tension between the two of them. Gloria had said they hadn't dated, but maybe they had fucked. Maybe she was comparing them both the whole time.)

Then his phone buzzes in his hand, and he sees the notification that Leon has shared a contact with him - Gloria Blair (Postwick, Trainer Victoria) it is labelled. 

A part of him smiles. He hasn’t saved the names for half the contacts on his phone but he’d bet that everyone on Leon’s is similarly meticulously labelled. 

And then he also smiles at knowing one more thing about Gloria as well - her last name. Something else he never got round to asking her last night. 

His phone gives an aggravated buzz. "You might want to know that all the gym challenger profiles are up." Rotom's voice is clipped with disapproval. 

He perks at that. "Thanks, rotom." 

The phone buzzes in his hand again as he pulls up Trainer Victoria's profile. She looks fierce in the press photos, even while smiling. 

There isn't much more information about her than what he already knew. Female, twenty, born in Postwick, relocated to Hoenn six years ago, following the untimely death of oh her twin brother. "His name was Victor," the article quotes. "And I chose my trainer nickname in his memory." 

Dimly, he recalls this incident. Leon had been distraught for weeks - wasn't his brother the other child who had been in that accident? 

He still isn't anywhere close to a full picture, but he can at least start to see the shapes of the pieces. 

Who are you, Pokemon Trainer Victoria? 

He looks through his photo gallery and finds that photo he took of Gloria. 

Then he deletes it. 

 

Gloria has finished applying repels around the campsite when she gets the call from the unknown number. She picks it up, a part of her still hoping that it is Hop. 

"Hello?" 

"Gloria?" Nope, definitely not Hop. She could smack herself - she has Hop's number saved on her phone, why did she think it would be him? 

"What the fuck do you want?" 

"You have every right to be angry with me."

"No shit."

She should hang up now. She really should. 

"I'm sorry," he says, and to his credit, he does sound apologetic. (It doesn’t matter. He can sound any way he wants. She knows Rose sends all his gym leaders to etiquette classes, it would make sense that they’d learn to act any way they want in front of the press.) "It was a dick move, and I shouldn't have yelled at you after that." 

"How the hell did you get my number?" 

"Leon." 

Of course. Because that man is always behind every one of her troubles. 

"What were you going to do with it? Send it to Leon for laughs? To the papers?" 

"No! Woman, how paranoid are you?" 

That stings. "Not enough it seems, if I didn't expect that from you." 

She hears him groan, and really she should hang up. She should have done that the second she heard his voice. 

She still does not. 

"I'm doing this all wrong," he finally says. "I wanted to say tell you I was wrong, and I shouldn't have taken that photo. I've deleted it. And no, I wasn't going to show it to anyone, it was meant for my own collection." 

"Your collection?" Gloria wishes she could reach through the screen of her phone to throttle him. "Is that what I am? A part of your collection?

"No!" 

She should have known better. She really should have. She had known, that she was going to be nothing to him, when she had agreed to his hotel. (But he had brought her water, he had looked at her body, and had still wanted to touch it, and he did, so so gently. How was she supposed to know it hadn't meant anything?) 

"The next time I see you," she says, and she tries her best to make her voice as cold as she can. "It will be to humiliate you and your team in your own gym." And finally, she hangs up. 

Already she is planning what team to take. A Galarian Mr Mime, or some kind of ice type for his flygon. She really wishes she could get an Alolan ninetails at this point, but there is no point thinking of her dream team, she may as well wish for her Hoenn team back. Lapras? They're rare but she's sure she can get one eventually in the Wild Area. She knows already she wants a salazzle for Opal's gym, and it would be fantastic if she can poison that precious duraludon of his on a live stream. 

Marnie unzips her tent. "All okay?" 

"Yeah." 

Clearly unconvinced, she pads out and gives her a hug. 

"Do you want to talk about it?" 

"No," Gloria says, and she is embarrassed at how shaky her voice is. Marnie squeezes her a little tighter. 

"Get some sleep, luv. It'll be better in the morning." 

She nods and crawls into her own tent. Tempo - already bigger after his meals and training - crawls sleepily towards her and clings onto her hair. The tent is soon filled with his gentle snores.  

As she drifts into sleep, a part of her wonders how she can expect Hop to forgive her, when she isn't capable of it herself.

Chapter Text

When Gloria wakes the next morning, she hears cursing coming from Marnie's tent. It takes a minute, but the girl unzips the tent, still clutching at her phone as she yells. 

"Yes, I'm alive, no ya don't have ta go to the police - ya lot are just embarrassing do ya know?"

She hangs up and glares at the phone. 

"Trouble?" 

"Just an annoyance." Marnie's face scrunches up in a scowl. "It was really great meeting ya, and we're going ta have ta have a battle some time, but I gotta get going."

"Can I hug you?" Gloria asks quickly, feeling her face heat up. 

Marnie is startled for a moment, but the smile that comes after is like the sun parting through clouds. "'Course." 

"Thank you," Gloria breathes. Marnie' hugs are like her - warm, solid, and very kind. "For everything." 

"Silly. That's what friends are for. Now what's your number?"

Gloria keys her contact into the phone while Marnie packs up. Marnie promises to text before dashing towards Motostoke. Waving at the shrinking figure, she feels lighter than she has in days.

She takes down her tent and pulls out a handful of oran berries.  

"Time to make a new friend," she tells Tempo. She releases the butterfree she'd caught at the dynamax den for the first time. 

It is startled at first, turning its head this way and that at the sunrise. She whistles to get its attention and holds out the oran berries. 

Bug type pokemon, at least, are easy to train, naturally gravitating towards listening to trainers. It doesn't take much more to impress on the butterfree that she is its new leader. 

She has the drill down - checks the butterfree for any kinds of injuries or defects, using the pokedex to scan it, female, recently hatched. She makes sure that the butterfree had its fill of nectar and berries, before releasing Orion from his ball. He emerges screeching, and as expected, the butterfree shrinks back. 

"Calm down," she tells Orion, stroking his feathers. He stills almost immediately, and she is glad to see how used to her she is getting. After it is clear that she is not going to be attacked, the butterfree moves a little closer. 

"I still have to name you," she muses. She tries to think of one but for some reason, nothing comes to mind. Butterfrees weren't that common in Hoenn, and she'd never thought about adding one to her lineup before. She strokes the butterfree's head, careful to avoid the poisonous powder on its wings. Liberty? Would it be too grandiose, thinking she had freed it from the dynamax den? 

The butterfree makes a soft noise as she leans onto Gloria's hand. Liberty then. 

"Training time," she says, and Liberty squeaks. 

 

In the end, she decides she will sell the roselia. There will always be rich women who wanted something pretty for their houses.

Liberty soon proves herself as a valuable addition to the team. Butterfree are known to be amongst the more peaceful bug pokemon, attacking only if disturbed. This butterfree has the aggression of a seviper, fanning out clouds of powder if she sees as much as a patch of grass twitch. Gloria wonders if it's a result of the dynamaxing. 

At least Liberty allows Orion and Tempo into her space, once it is established that they're friends. Orion still keeps his distance, but at least he isn’t getting into a fight. Tempo has already begun to take the butterfree under his metaphorical wing, giving her his extra berries and insisting they stop at every flower cluster for the butterfree to take in the nectar.

They clear a path back to Lake Axwell and Gloria releases Seriyu again into the water. He bubbles happily, and then releases a hydro pump at a frillish that has the audacity to swim too close to his personal space. 

She knows that at some point she will have to put him into storage, if he still refuses to evolve. It's the right thing - she already has her hands full with training and feeding her other pokemon - but a part of her is still reluctant. Seriyu has come back home, like her. Maybe his not wanting to grow is a sign from the universe. 

She snorts, and Tempo glances at her in surprise as the politoed before him keels over from his branch poke. "Good job, love, keep going!" she calls, keeping a smile on her face. 

Really, she needs to stop being ridiculous. 

Her training regime is simple, but effective. She leaves the pokemon around her to clear out the other pokemon in the area, while she supervises their attacks, occasionally calling in to try a different attack, directing one to help the other if she sees someone struggling. This way, they built trust in each other, and soon they are helping each other out without her input. 

Liberty learns gust from watching Orion. Tempo learns to call up stronger and thicker vines for his vine whip. Seriyu bullies all the neighbouring goldeen and keeps a large space for himself to swim lazily in circles, diving every now and then to spit out a shining scale or pearl onto the shore. 

She also keeps scanning the horizon for any strong looking pokemon. With her team as it is now, they won't stand up to a gyrados or a steelix, and she has their balls at her fingers, ready to recall them and run if needed. 

She keeps thinking of all the ways she can train them. 

 

She enters the Galar mines after spending a week in the Wild Area, satisfied with her team's progress. No one is championship material yet but they are more than ready for the first two gyms. The roselia is sold off to a boutique in Motostoke, who wants the pokemon for their shop's signature scent. She sells off the pearls at the market and restocks her supplies. 

The mining company at the mine is all too happy to offer work to passing trainers. She hesitates, knowing she is far behind other gym challengers at this point, but eventually decides to take it up. Having extra cash never hurts, and she'll just go after the gyms one after another. She spends another day in the mines. Orion spots anything shiny with his sharp eye, Tempo does the heavy lifting, and Liberty uses her psychic abilities to keep watch for any wild intruders, sending blasts of confusion their way if they wander too close. 

Coal goes in one cart. Anything shiny in the other, which the miners will value, weigh, and clean afterwards. Rubble she keeps in a pile. 

At one point, Orion picks up something that he passes to her with his beak. 

She shifts the electric torch she is holding to get a better look. It is a grey blue stone, almost metallic looking in its sheen, with red lines running through it, pointed like a star. 

"A Wishing Star?" she says out loud. She'd looked into the stones when researching the Galar region of course, but most researchers had claimed that they were parts of meteorites, some claiming you could still find them after a shower of shooting stars. What would one be doing down here in the mines? 

She pockets it, and then takes it out again to run her fingers through it, and then pockets it again. 

They're covered in dirt but a lot richer by the end of the afternoon. She can easily afford to stay at one of the nicer hotels in Turffield, and she places a reservation at the trainer hotel near the gym for a room that has a large tub for Seriyu. A treat to her team for working so hard. The miners hands her a round of sandwiches, which she picks apart and feeds her pokemon while still playing with the Wishing Star as they walk towards the Turffield exit. They're nearly at the end, the golden rays of the sunset streaming through when she spots the trainer in their way. 

He's wearing a bright puffy magenta coat, and has a shock of curly grey hair - she idly wonders how many times he needed to sit in a salon to get it bleached to that colour. She thinks she remembers seeing him at the opening ceremony - he has ridiculously pretty features. It has only been a few weeks, but it is all a blur of bright lights and heart-pounding noise now. 

"Hello," she says. 

He nods at her, and even from that small gesture, she feels like she has been sized up and dismissed. She gives a mental shrug - she supposes that she can't expect otherwise, given how filthy she is now. 

"Trainer Victoria," he acknowledges. 

She blinks. 

“You’re one of the challengers endorsed by the Champion."

Of course that would be how people would recognise her. “What’s it to you?”

He snorts and refuses to answer. "My name is Bede," he says curtly instead. The hostility radiating from him could cut diamond. 

“Don’t think that just because Leon endorsed me we’re close. Just the opposite.” 

“I see." His expression softens the tiniest bit. "So you’re not one of those trainers going around lording your status over everyone.” 

“I should hope not.” Who is this pompous ass? She wants to point out the absolute hypocrisy of his behaviour, but wants to know more about his dislike of Leon. It sounds almost personal. 

“In that case, we may tolerate your presence.” 

"Did you just use the royal 'we'?" 

 He nods his chin - his stupid pointed pretty chin - towards a little shadow at the corner. It comes scampering towards him. Gloria's blood goes cold once she sees it in the light, even if it has a vacant doll-like expression on its little pink face. 

Hattrem.

Fucking Psychic-type trainers. 

She sucks in a breath and tries to calm down. The hattrem is already glancing her way while Bede strokes the top of her head. She swears his smile has gotten more smug. 

“I’m looking for Wishing Stars in this mine." Bede is clearly one of those individuals who have spent their life mastering the art of sneering. "It's important business for the Chairman himself, so you can stay out of my way."

Gloria hates being pushed around at the best of times, and any mention of Rose is enough to get her angry. “You can take that attitude and sod right off,” she snaps back as calmly as she can. 

Bede grins, and really, it is more of a smirk than anything else. "How about a battle?" 

He uses his hattrem, of course. She sends her butterfree out and makes use of her speed advantage immediately. 

"Poison powder," she instructs and butterfree lets loose a scattering of powder immediately. Supersonic after that, and then bug buzz.  

Hattrem tries. She really does, but the fact is, butterfrees in Galar produce a far more potent form of poison powder compared to any other regions - something to do with the abundance of predators within the Wild Area so its natural defence, confusion, is rendered inadequate. Combine that with the cocktail of poisonous flowers she has been feeding her butterfree for the last week and Liberty is now ready to scorch Milo's earth. 

Gloria does her best to not enjoy too much the shock on Bede's face when the hattrem keels over.  

You’re not just a talker, are you?" Bede says as he recalls his pokemon. The emotion on his face is already wiped clean - fucking Psychic type trainers - and he is tapping something on his phone. Her phone buzzes and she guesses its the money for winning the battle.

"I'm a competent trainer, if that's what you mean," she sniffs. She's still insulted by his earlier behaviour. "Why are you looking for Wishing Stars?" 

His skin flushes pink. "That's on a need-to-know basis with the Chairman only." She takes that to mean that he doesn't know either. 

"So what's your problem with Leon?" 

Bede sniffs. "People always go on and on about the Champion. What about other important figures like the Chairman, who do more for our region than smile for the camera?" He nods at the Wishing Star she has still clutched in her hand. "I suppose you're going to use that for your Gym Challenge to dynamax your pokemon." 

The idea of dynamaxing her butterfree turns her stomach immediately. 

"No." 

He tilts his head. "You could always ask the League for a band." For the first time, she notices the Dynamax band he has strapped to his wrist. 

The pointed edges of the Wishing Star dig into her skin. "No, I don't think Dynamaxing is for me."

"As good as you might think you are, you won't make it very far in your Gym Challenge without a Dynamax band." She thinks he is trying to sound kind, but it is more condescending than anything. 

"I won't Dynamax," she says. She hates how petulant she sounds. "It's unnatural. It hurts pokemon." 

Bede gives a short, sharp bark. "And pokemon battles don't? I trust you're at least intelligent enough to see how flawed your logic is." 

She feels her anger rise immediately - and hattrem's fainted so she doesn't have to worry about the thing breaking her bones now - but still forces the feelings down. She doesn't need to argue pokemon ethics with a stranger with a bizarre superiority complex. 

"Thanks for the battle, Bede," she says instead, and leaves the cave, the Wishing Star carving a hollow in her hand. 

 

Chapter Text

Gloria's parents weren't farmers - her father was an engineer who travelled to Wedgehurst daily to work at one of Macro Cosmos' subsidiary companies - but she grew up in Postwick, which is almost entirely farmland. She has fallen in wooloo pens almost as many times as she has climbed into them, she has done odd jobs for neighbours chasing skwovets and rookidees from their crops, helping with harvest seasons when she grew older for pocket money, and of course, she has spent countless hours wearing large floppy hats and gloves tending to her mother's garden. 

This is how she knows that the rolling fields surrounding Turffield are full of taurusshit. Metaphorical only, because of course, they wouldn't be able to use any kind of organic fertiliser and risk scaring off the tourists. 

The heads of wheat are growing at almost exactly the same height. The flowers sprouting by the sides of the road are purely ornamental and do not produce any actual fruit. Everything has been sprayed down by some kind of roselia-sap scented pesticide. She knows the brand because her mother used it sparingly once in their garden before and the budews refused to come close for months. 

Somewhere, the town clock strikes six. There's a shout, and a crowd begins gathering by the entrance of a field. All tourists from the big fancy Galarian cities, but also visitors from outside their region, someone who could be Alolan, someone with a strong Unovan accent, raising their cameras and phones in anticipation. 

A herd of wooloo come rolling out of a field. The tourists raise their phones in rapt attention. 

And then as if on cue, gym leader Milo comes running out.

"Come back 'ere, ya walking pile of fluff!" he yells. Gloria winces at the thickness of his Turffield accent, no doubt done for the benefit of the tourists. The crowd laughs and snaps more photos as he chases after the wooloo. And if his chest is a little too broad for his shirt, and his pants straining ever so slightly around his ass as he runs, well, she supposes none of the tourists are complaining. 

She feels like throwing up. Tries to remember when the breadbasket of Galar became a mockery of its roots. 

Tempo and Orion sense her distress and crowd a little closer to her as she tries to breathe. She will not have a panic attack wondering about Turffield's authenticity. 

"Thanks," she murmurs and starts walking again towards the hotel. She just wants a very long soak in the tub. 

But of course, life always gets in the way between her and hygiene. Hop is standing outside of the Pokemon Center like a duskull out of a waking dream and she has no way of going past him without him noticing. She wonders if she's covered in enough dirt to be disguised - but nope, he spots Tempo and calls her name, sounding a little breathless. 

"I can't find Sonia," he says. 

Gloria's blood runs cold. He doesn't need to say anything else but already her mind is sprinting through all the scenarios Sonia could have gotten herself in. She was more coherent in Motostoke, but she's clearly still not well. 

She pulls up a photo of Sonia on her phone and shows it to Orion, sends the bird out into the skies. He flies back down in a couple of minutes, and she and Hop follow after. 

Sonia is standing over at the tourist spot overlooking all the Turffield monuments, twirling her hair as she stares at the stones. The famed Turffield crop patterns fan out behind her - and one look and Gloria is certain they’re as fake as Milo’s accent. The stones though. A part of her knows that anything can be faked these days, including worn stones and moss. But another part is certain that those at least, are real. 

Sonia turns to beam at Gloria and Hop as they call her name, as though they hadn't just run themselves ragged halfway through the town to find her. 

"You guys!” Sonia is glowing. Whatever magic Hop is working, he’s doing it right. “Have you seen the monuments? How incredible are they?” 

“You weren’t answering your phone,” Hop says dumbly, still panting. 

Sonia pats her pockets and pulls out her phone. “Oh, I’ve left it on silent! I’m so sorry Hop!” 

“It’s fine,” Gloria says, hating the dismay on Sonia’s face. "Why are you both still here? Did it take Hop that long to beat Milo?" She almost claps her mouth after the words leave her mouth - she'd meant it as a joke, like the competitive banter they used to have as children, but who knew how Hop would take it if he were still angry at her. 

Hop rolls his eyes, but at least he doesn't seem unduly insulted.

"Oh no, Hop beat Milo days ago," Sonia laughs. "He was the one who insisted that we stay here and wait for you.” 

Gloria turns to Hop, surprised. Is he blushing? 

"Well, no one's seen you in the last week," he mutters. 

"I text Sonia every day."

“So we know for sure you're alive now, and we're going." He grabs Sonia's arm and tugs her away. Gloria makes a mental note to review his emotions after she gets her time in a hot tub. 

But before Hop leaves, he says "I caught a rookidee too."

"Oh." Gloria frowns and has no idea what he means by his. Is he accusing her of copying him? That would be ridiculous though. It would be like saying no one else can catch a pidgey because he had one on his team.

"He's still a rookidee though."

Gloria nods, still not understanding where he is going. 

Hop sighs and gestures at Orion and Tempo - who have been a corvisquire and thwackey for the last two days. "I don't know what you've been doing, but it looks like you’re doing it right.” He ducks his head, but she thinks he’s blushing again, before running out of the place. Sonia gives Gloria another wave, which Gloria barely registers before she waves back.

 

She checks her phone after she has showered off the dirt on her and waits for the monstrously large bathtub to fill up. Lets Sapphire and Marnie know that she's arrived in Turffield safe. Marnie sends a thumbs up immediately, and a photo of her Water badge. 

Catch up soon! she says. 

Gloria grins as she texts back Coming right at ya! 

And before she can forget, she logs into the League website and files in her application for the Turffield gym. She chooses the slot for just after noon and receives the confirmation email immediately. She sighs. She’s probably one of the last challengers at Turffield. Speed doesn’t matter, she knows. There are many trainers who burn out, or hit a wall quickly because they skip through the rural areas, choosing instead to take trains to the different towns and just don't get enough training or experience. She's chosen to go on foot. She’s starting with a brand new team. Of course she will be slower.

It still rankles, just a bit. As though she were the weaker trainer. 

She finally tunes into social media when she has turned the bathroom into her own personal sauna. Orion and Liberty opt to fly around the town’s night air once the room fills up with steam - she trusts them to handle themselves; and come back when they can’t. Tempo eyes the hot water and bath salts mix suspiciously but eventually settles in next to her, making soft cooing noises as he does so. 

She checks the challengers' page and yes - as expected, she's one of the last challengers up against Milo. A couple have already blazed past Kabul, and are on their way to Bea's gym on Stow-on-Side. There are even a few tabloid articles about her, wondering where the promising trainer from Hoenn has gone. Some nastier comments saying that the Galar League is the best, some washup from another region can barely hope to compete. She smiles grimly as she reads it and wonders how well these people would survive the Hoenn wilds. 

There are video recordings of Hop's, Marnie's and Bede's matches, which she settles down to watch. The three of them are far better than any of the other trainers she casually flicks through the other videos while her bathwater goes cold. 

Finally, she checks on Raihan's social media account. Other gym leaders probably have a manager or one of their gym trainers manage their accounts for them - it's obvious from the timed posts, the picture-perfect photos with carefully chosen colour palettes that have been tastefully edited to oblivion. Not Raihan's. 

His entire feed is a chaotic mess. There are some professionally taken photos when he models for some campaign or other, shots clearly taken by his phone of his food, his pokemon, misspelt captions - nothing about women though, and definitely no nude photos of herself. Something in her chest loosens slightly. 

She carries a sleepy Tempo out of the tub and dries him with a towel as she fills the tub again with clean ice-cold water for Seriyu to have his turn. She falls asleep in a bed for the first time in over a week, and does her best to not remember how it felt to lie next to another human body. As though he can sense her thoughts, Tempo makes a soft noise and crawls closer. 

 

"Oh, come on!" 

Fuck Galar. Fuck this entire damn region, and their gym challenges, and their stupid stupid cameras. 

She'd been so focused on challenging Milo she had forgotten about the goddamn gym mission.

Herding wooloo. Which stuffed suit up in the Pokemon League thought this would be a good idea, she has no clue. No self-respecting farmer would let a bunch of amateurs chase their sheep - it probably curdles the milk or something. They probably roll over themselves in laughter as they see trainers chase around the pokemon for everyone's amusement. 

Better prepared trainers would come with some kind of food - a mash of oats, carrots and apples would be ideal, if she remembers right from her younger days - and have the wooloo follow them as a flurried fluffy mass. She is not one of those trainers, so she will improvise. 

She sends Orion up in the skies - grateful that he evolved before the match because a corvisquire is just that much more intimidating than a rookidee - and Tempo takes the ground. The two of them make short work of the challenge, Orion cawing loudly enough so they scatter towards the goat's direction, and Tempo's vines push any stragglers to the correct path. When they release the yampers, Tempo takes care of them by throwing some razor leaves in their direction while never breaking his focus on the wooloo. Then the gym trainers step out, and send one grass type pokemon after another. Tempo takes over the steering then, sending moving walls of vines whipping after the wooloo, while Orion swoops down to deal with the other pokemon. A gossifleur, budew, bounsweet, and a couple of oddish. They're barely panting by the time they clear the last field. 

Her pokemon, all ready for the barn. Who knew. 

She tosses her pokemon each a berry, and is ushered up a flight of stairs by a team of trainers. Backstage, a team of makeup artists slaps on some powder and tinted gloss on her face, fusses over her hair. She recalls her pokemon when the hair spray comes out. 

Then someone with a clipboard straps a Dynamax band onto her wrist, a Wishing Star clipped onto it. He runs her through the instructions on using it while she stares at the band, barely hearing him speak. It is a lot lighter than she had imagined. 

Gloria thinks about her conversation with Bede as she walks through the long tunnel leading to the stadium. Yes, battling hurts pokemon. Yes, she is a hypocrite of the deepest kind. 

She still can't forget Liberty's screams in the Dynamax Den. 

She slips on the high-tech ear plugs she had bought in Motostoke before she walks out into the field and adjusts it so that the noise of the crowd fades. The emcee begins calling out her name, pulling out her profile so it takes up half the big screen, an image of her Hoenn badges, pictures of Orion and Tempo from the earlier gym mission displayed. "Aaaaand if you'll remember, the season's favourite from the Hoenn region, Trainer Victoria!” The camera zooms onto her face as she strides onto the field. She remembers to smile and wave. 

Milo's silhouette emerges from the opposite tunnel. He meets her in the middle, and they shake hands. He's not that much taller than she is, but so much broader, with hands that fold over hers like a trap. She feels almost as much dwarfed as she did next to Raihan. 

"You herd wooloo like a natural," he grins, his accent far more believable now. 

"I grew up in Postwick," she says in reply, and he beams at her immediately, one farm boy to a farm girl. She hates how much she just wants to smile back. 

"Looking forward to this match then, Postwick." 

She's not going to let down her guard because of another gym leader's charms. She's not. 

They stand at their ends of the field.

There's a control panel in front of her, with a mic, some buttons that can make different noises that she can use to catch her pokemon's attention. A skilled trainer would also have trained their pokemon to respond to different sounds, so they can give instructions without alerting their opponent. This at least, is not changed. 

Milo at the opposite end of the field, waiting for her to issue her challenge. 

She knows all eyes are on her. 

Slowly, she slips the Dynamax Band from her wrist and tosses it away. On the big screen behind Milo, she sees how the camera tracks the band's movement, until it finally lands on the stadium ground between herself and Milo. 

The crowd explodes. 

"It seems that Trainer Victoria has opted not to Dynamax for this challenge! What an unexpected turn of events!” 

A lesser trainer would pick a pokemon with a type advantage and dynamax it immediately so it KOs each of Milo’s pokemon before he has the chance to move. She has watched enough videos of that.

She wonders what the entertainment value in such matches are. Why people still pay to watch matches with little skill or strategy involved. Maybe it all boils down to the novelty of dynamaxing. 

Gloria has her chosen pokeball in her hands. She sees her face now on the screen, and ignores it. A distraction. Everything but the field is a distraction. 

The stadium's field is a gentle grassy turf - not a single untrimmed blade of grass breaking the smoothness of surface. There will be nowhere to hide, no clever tricks she can employ on the terrain. Which is fine, as she had intended to brute force the challenge. 

Milo is still waiting for her, as is expected by the gym challenge. 

She slugs her pokeball into the field. Shouts the traditional challenge words. 

"I choose you, butterfree!" 

Liberty flutters out as Milo sends out his gossifleur. Both pokeballs are returned to their owners by the ralts positioned at each side of the gym. The pokemon Milo use for the gym challenge are offspring from his championship team's eldegoss. Flore, if she remembers her name correctly. 

"Aaaaand it looks like Trainer Victoria has opted to use a butterfree! Bug type pokemon are certainly a good choice against the grass type pokemon in Turffield!" 

She could smack the emcee for his patronising tone. 

No. She needs to focus. 

"Scorch the earth," she tells her butterfree. Liberty, unlike her, doesn't waste any time. 

A combination of poison powder and gust means the pristine field immediately begins to blacken. The gossifleur's petals begin to droop immediately. 

"Trainer Victoria is employing a strange strategy, attacking the field instead of the opponent pokemon! Or has she lost control of her butterfree?" 

Milo, unlike the emcee, is not an idiot. His eyes widen when he realises what Gloria is doing. 

"Keep at it, and dodge any attacks your way!" Gloria yells. 

“Gossifleur, use leafage!" 

Gloria feels her lips twist up into a smile. It's cute, really. She'd trained Liberty to dodge razor leaves from Tempo - leafage will hardly do anything. Liberty doesn’t even bother directing attacks at the gossifleur, and focuses on destroying the field. 

As the entire field blackens, the gossifleur slowly succumbs to the poison and faints. Milo recalls the pokemon. All smiles are wiped from his face now. 

"You're going to get uprooted,” he calls out. The crowd cheers while Gloria winces at the pun. 

"It looks like Gym Leader Milo will be Dynamaxing his gossifleur! How will Trainer Victoria last?" 

He dynamaxes the pokeball as the gym changes its music. She doesn’t miss the awww from the crowd when he kisses the oversized ball before tossing it before him. The enormous eldegoss emerges and roars. 

If Gloria hadn’t slipped in her earplugs before the match, she would be clapping her hands over her ears. She doesn’t understand. It can’t just be a front, the way Milo behaves as though he loves his pokemon. How could he do this to them? 

She whistles a note and Liberty lets loose a spray of poison onto the eldegoss. 

"Nice try!" Milo shouts. "Max overgrowth!" 

The eldegoss raises its root-like appendages and sinks them into the ground. 

Instead of lush green growth emerging, its roots begin to blacken. 

Gloria smiles. 

Max overgrowth is usually enough to counter most poisons, and bring a field back to life and heal the grass type pokemon in the process. Usually. 

It is why she had sent Liberty out first to completely decimate the field first rather than rely on poisoning the eldegoss alone. It was also why she had spent the last week building up not just Liberty's store of toxins, but also trained both Orion and Tempo to handle themselves in a poisonous environment, in case they were needed. Liberty would scorch a patch of grass and Tempo would work to bring it back to life, over and over again. She had never run through Pecha berries so quickly before. Tempo had also refused to cuddle her for the first two days of that training regime.

But now, without the Max overgrowth transforming the terrain, the eldegoss is only a bigger, tankier pokemon. She only has to wait out the Dynamax effect. 

If Milo is impressed, he doesn't show it. 

"Max overgrowth again!" he yells and oh, the eldegoss is trying but Gloria can barely tune out its screams now. 

"Infestation," she tells Liberty. The butterfree weaves her way to the eldegoss and settles there for a moment, before fluttering away. 

More screams. 

She whistles another note. The butterfree's wings begin to glow as Liberty uses confusion. 

"Magical leaf!" Milo shouts. 

There is no dodging that one. Liberty takes the hit, but repeats the confusion attack at her command.

Gloria watches the eldegoss' head closely. With the combination of the infestation and double dose of poison, there should be some effect - ah, she sees how the white fluffy head of the eldegoss looks a little less full than it should. 

She recalls Liberty and sends out Orion, just as the eldegoss shrinks back down to a normal size. 

"Wing attack," she instructs, and the eldegoss keels over after the hit. 

She and Milo step through the poisoned field to meet in the middle after recalling her pokemon. He shakes her hand for the cameras and passes her the gym badge, but not before making a show of raising it up high for the cameras to see. 

"Good job," he says, and it looks like he wants to say more but the crowd is screaming through her earplugs, and the emcee is still yelling something. She smiles, an empty expression, and heads backstage into the locker room, which is mercifully empty. She hoses herself down in the shower while fully-clothed to get rid of any lingering poison, and thinks about her next match with Nessa. Finally, she squelches her way back into the locker room while towelling her hair. 

"Hey," Raihan says, casually lounging against the benches as though he has every right to be there. "Good match. Also, nice wet shirt look." 

Gloria drops her towel.

 

Chapter Text

“Don’t throw anything at me,” Raihan says as Gloria reaches for the pokeball that holds Tempo. 

"Get out." 

"Gloria, please - "

"If you do not leave now, I will scream, and security will come in and I will report you for harassment." 

Raihan smiles, and it's not a happy expression. "You know that won't work." 

Gloria does not loosen her grip on the pokeball. "What, so gym leader celebrities are untouchable?" 

He shrugs. "If we play our cards right, pretty much." She opens her mouth again to curse him out but he must know this, because he interrupts her. “I didn’t come here to debate unfortunate social realities with you. Or to harass you.”

“If my message wasn’t clear the last time we talked, or when I blocked your number, I do not want to talk to you." 

"I know, but - "

"Consent, Raihan, would you prefer I used another language? I could use Hoenn if you liked, or Imperial - "

"Damnit Gloria." He grabbed her arm - the one not holding the pokeball - and yanks her up close. "Listen to me. I came to warn you.

His words shock her enough that she forgets how to twist out of his grip - but he almost immediately loosens his hold anyway. 

"Warn me," she says flatly while her mind is turning over his words a hundred different angles a second, trying to understand his trick. “About what?" 

"Rose,” he says, is all he needs to say and the breath is punched out of her lungs, and all her rage at him with it. It’s like he knows her legs have gone limp because he takes the opportunity to tug her closer to speak quietly into her ear. “Be careful when talking to the press later. Locker rooms are bugged.  I’ll be at the pub opposite your hotel.” Then he leaves her alone in the room with the smell of his cologne still filling up the space like another person and she is left wondering if she wants to slap him or kiss him. 

Both. Definitely both. 

She tosses her wet clothes into a plastic bag and changes back into normal civilian wear - all brand new, courtesy of the money she'd earned at the Galar mines. After spending the last week in the Wild Area in the same set of clothes she'd been too happy to burn them all when she was done. 

The noise from the camera flashes and reporters in the lobby crest over her like a tsunami the second she walks out of the changing room. 

"Trainer Victoria! Why the decision not to Dynamax?" 

"What took you so long to get to Turffield?" 

"How are you feeling now that you've won your first badge?" 

She's conscious of her wet hair sticking to the sides of her face, her lack of makeup. She squares her shoulders anyway and begins to answer questions. 

 

She's finally dealt with most of the reporters when she runs into Milo hunching near the entrance. 

"Hey, Postwick." He waves her over and hands her a package which she takes. The Turffield gym uniform. Huh. 

"Nice job raising your Thawckey," he says. "You clearly know your way with grass types." 

And he is all smiles, and so kind, she can't help but ask "Why do you do it?" 

He's genuinely confused. "Do what?" 

"Act like a country bumpkin for the tourists. Dynamax your pokemon. All of it." 

He laughs a little and scratches his neck underneath the handkerchief tied over it. “Well, I am a country bumpkin, no way getting ‘round that.” 

“You know what I mean.” 

He blinks, and the smile fades a little. He speaks quietly, like he's afraid of being overheard, and Gloria thinks of Raihan telling her that the locker rooms are bugged. "There was a bad fire, a few years back, and most of the grookey in the area were wiped out. Harvests died with them, and most of the farmers had to sell their land. Now we can't farm, even if we wanted. Well, there's still some farmland further away from the town - " 

"- out of sight from the tourists you mean - "

He nods. "And there are people who work there but most of it is automated by one of the Marco Cosmos companies now. So we had to turn up the town for the tourists."

She's horrified. "And that's why Turffield is a glorified amusement park." 

He nods again. "Farmers gotta eat. Even if we ain't farmers any more." 

He gives her his League Card as well before he leaves, before wishing her luck for the rest of her gym challenge. 

It is only after she walks out of the gym that she realises Milo never answered her question on Dynamaxing. 

Outside, streetlamps have been lit. Turffield is larger than Postwick and Wedgehurt, but is still a rural town, without the walled perimeter of bigger cities like Hammerlocke and Motostoke. Buildings are built low to avoid the Electric and Bug type pokemon swarms. Lights are still reserved for the essential buildings like the gym and pokecenters, while the street lamps are old fashioned oil and fire. 

Some of the city tourists are snapping photos of the lamps. She wants to throw all their phones into the phoney fields. 

She stops by the Pokecenter to heal up her team before heading to the pub. It's filled with pokemon fans arguing with each other the best strategies for raising Flapples, whether or not the Turffield challenger’s strategy earlier was legitimate or not - someone yelling something that if Raihan’s allowed to turn the entire stadium into a massive sandstorm then that’s not principally different from poisoning the terrain with either poison powder or toxic spikes or Max Ooze and someone shouts back that Max Ooze is completely different and that isn't what it does anyway - 

She makes sure to pull her cap down low over her face as she walks past.  

She spots him slouched at a booth in the back, wearing a dark coat and jeans. 

She ignores him and walks over to the bar herself and orders herself a beer, a brand she'd seen her father nurse some nights in the living room armchair after coming home from work. It tastes heavier and darker than the ones she's used to in Hoenn. 

"Right," she says once she's gotten two mouthfuls down and sidled into the booth to sit in front of him. "Talk." 

“I wasn’t sure if you would show up,” he says, spinning his phone on the table. 

She barely recognises him, unsmiling and stern and absent his usual arrogant patina. She prefers him this way. At least, it doesn’t make her feel like punching him. 

He's shaking his head.

"This anti-Dynamax thing is going to get you onto Rose's shit list." 

She takes another long gulp of beer. "And?" she asks when he doesn't continue. 

"What were you trying to achieve when you came back?" he asks quietly. "Revenge? Justice?" 

"I'm just another trainer here for the Gym Challenge, I have no idea what you're talking about." 

"Gloria." He says her name as though he knows her better than that. 

He doesn't. She hates that he pretends to.

"You don't know what you're getting into."

"It feels like we're talking in circles, so why don't you actually tell me?" 

"You think Victor's death was covered up." 

She feels all the blood in her face freeze. Whatever he was going to say tonight, she didn’t think he would dig there. "I know it was."

"It was," he says, agreeing, and she has no idea how she is supposed to feel - that someone has agreed with her out loud for the first time. Even Leon hadn’t, not explicitly, back in her family’s kitchen in Postwick. Then he adds "But not for the reasons you think it was."

"They were trying to protect Leon's image." But that statement feels incredibly weak right now. 

"Good guess, and that was partially it, but it was bigger than that. They never found his body, did they?" 

"Why do you know all this?" 

"I'm a gym leader. It's my job to take care of city-level politics. Plus,” he adds dryly, “as Leon’s best friend and greatest rival I had front row seats to that piece of drama." 

Of course. "So what happened back then?" 

He shrugs. "Leon went to Postwick to take his baby brother and adopted baby siblings on their pokemon journey. He was going to meet them in Motostoke after they took the train from Wedgehurst." 

Something in her twists. "The world knows that." Then "We were not his adopted siblings." 

Raihan snorts. "He wouldn't shut up for days about his brother and friends whenever he went back to Postwick. Made me jealous, more than once. He never really told me your names though, so it took me a while to figure out the Gloria I ended up - " he coughs and doesn't finish that sentence, and she doesn't have to throw the rest of her drink at him. "But I knew he endorsed all of you back then and just kept quiet when the headlines didn't add up. Figured it was none of my business. He never told Hop, but he was sure Victor had a strong chance of making the Finals that year. Boy was a natural, he said."

"That's Victor." Gloria's voice sounds like it's coming from another person. 

"Then they never got off the train at Motostoke. Leon started the search party that night. I was there, did you know that?" She shakes her head. "Was in Motostoke for the opening ceremony so of course I wasn't going to stand around and not do anything. It took us a day to find Hop, near the Watchtower ruins. Leon got me to bring Hop back to Motostoke, and kept searching for Victor. He didn't come back for another day, and when he did, he called off the search party and tried to resign as Champion."

"Don't. Don't talk about Leon to me like it wasn't his fault - " 

"What, so I'm supposed to talk about him like he's a monster? He's not. You know that." 

And Gloria does know it. It has been why it has always been so hard to think of Leon - kind, enthusiastic Leon - as one of the corporate bigwigs.

"Something happened out in the Wild Area that day. Something big. They wouldn't have felt the need to pay off your family otherwise, and they had something on Leon so he couldn't just step down.” He exhales. “That’s all I’ve figured out so far. But if you’re back here because you want to keep digging, you need to be careful. I told you. You're on his shit list now - refusing to play by his rules, his game. You didn't want to Dynamax during your match. You made a little show of defiance of it too - you could have just quietly refused to not Dynamax, but you had to go throw the band for the cameras."

"I didn't come here expecting to be on his good girl list." 

"You don't understand what it means to be on the shit list. Spikemuth is falling to pieces because Piers is being too fucking honourable to Dynamax so he doesn't get any sponsors and the provincial government gets next to no funding. He could rig matches against you. Have the press write a thousand articles about your incompetency to scare you off the challenge, and then pay off more people with fake accounts to carry that on to social media. Make sure you can't get a room in a decent hotel in any city or keep you waiting so long in the waiting room at a hospital so you pass out from blood loss or something." 

He taps his phone and hums. "No negative headlines from any of the main papers. At least you didn't say anything about hating on the Dynamax phenomenon or the Macro Cosmos conglomerate though. I wanted to see if I could earn a badge without Dynamaxing - good statement, neutral, answers the question. I should introduce you to Piers, I think you two will get along." 

"And you, Gym Leader Raihan?" Gloria holds her voice steady, even though her hands are shaking under the table. "What's Chairman Rose got on you?" 

He exhales and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Nothing. For now." 

"Disappointing." 

His lip curls as he leans close. "Want to hear a secret?" 

Gloria feels like crying, and still wants to slap him, but she can't help but feel her lips twitch into a smile. It's a very confusing mixture of feelings and she infinitely prefers it when she was just angry at him. "What?" 

"Everyone knows I'm a social media whore. But it's the only way I have any kind of control over my life. They can't start talking about my diets or gym routines if I've posted about it first." 

A giggle escapes her lips. "No." 

"I have three of those dragon hoodies which I wear whenever I'm in public. If I'm in the same thing all the time, the tabloids can't begin to analyse my wardrobe." 

She's smiling now. "Genuis." 

"I've been told I am, on occasion." 

She finishes her beer but she doesn't think the buzz beneath her skin is from the alcohol. 

Raihan's voice is gentle when he asks her if she's alright. 

She should go up to her hotel room. She should go, really. Leave this place. Go back to Hoenn, and her family, and Sapphire, and Ruby and her pokemon and challenge the Elite Four - she knows she stands a good chance of making it to at least the third ring, if not challenging Steven, and she’d picked torchic as her starter to specially go after the champion himself. Who did she think she was, that she could just storm in here and go after one of the most predatory business empires there was, just by playing by their rules and battling pokemon? 

She thinks of Giovanni and the exposé novel that took a decade after the downfall of Team Rocket to be written because of the sheer amount of paperwork that needed to be sifted through which showed how he had his finger in every pie in both Kanto and Johto. This is what she is up against, except Macro Cosmos has a shield of legitimacy that the sharpest aegislash would not be able to slice through. She knows - she’s spent the last few years digging through every court case that has been filed against them. 

But then she thinks of Milo, and how he is forced to play a village idiot for the tourists, just to save his town. Of Hop, and how he shook when he saw Leon. And Leon - she still remembers how he would care for her and Victor when they were younger. Took the children to pick apples and lectured them on choosing the best wild pokemon and never made it seem like a chore. Hop hadn't been the only one who clung to his every word. They all had. Even before he became Champion. 

If she hates what he is now, it is because of Marco Cosmos. 

She orders another beer and downs half of it, then asks the other question that’s been bugging her since Raihan whispered into her ear in the locker room.

“Why are you doing this?” 

He tips back against the seat and looks at her, completely unfazed, like he expected the question. “Because I care,” he says. 

“Why?” 

“Why not?” And for the first time that night, he flashes his shit-eating fanged grin that makes her dig her fingernails into her palms, and she still doesn’t know if she wants to slap him or kiss him. 

He laughs at her expression, and gently takes her hands and soothes her fingers until they finally unclench herself. She doesn’t know what the bigger surprise is - the intimacy of his gesture, or that she lets him continue doing it. 

"You came here with a plan," he says. "It wasn't just to for the Gym Challenge. You're smarter than that."

"You don't know me." It sounds weak and petulant even to her own ears - he's proven in the last half hour of conversation that he probably knows her better than anyone in this region. 

He continues stroking her hand. Warm firm movements, the way a trainer might try to soothe a spooked pokemon. "I think I do, just a little." 

She decides not to argue with him on this one. "This doesn't mean you get to sleep with me." 

He snorts. "Don't I know it." 

"So what do you want?"

He is silent for a long time, as though carefully turning the words over his head before speaking out loud. "I want you to know you're not alone in this."

They're nice words. Pretty words that make her feel as though a vulpix has crawled into her lap and settled in to purr, but words all the same. 

She takes her hands from his. "Is this how you're trying to apologise?" 

He has the audacity to smile. "Is it working?"

A little, but she isn't going to tell him that. "Give me your phone," she says instead. He's taken aback, but unlocks it before he hands it over without protest. 

She checks his photo gallery. Which is atrociously organised - basically everything dumped into the one folder - and she has to arrange it by date and slowly scroll through a thousand selfies, photos of his food, his pokemon, the odd sandstorm (what on earth was up with those?) and far too many shirtless photos. She can't help but blush at those and fuck this man, he's smirking

"Nothing you haven't seen before, sweetheart." 

She feels her face heat up more. "Don't call me that." And damnit, he's just smirking harder. She prefers him when he was telling her about all the ways Macro Cosmos can destroy her life. 

She's reached the photos taken during the Opening Ceremony. And no, no nudes except for his own. 

It doesn't mean anything. The photo could still be saved somewhere else. 

"I'd understand if you're still angry at me," he says quietly. "I just couldn't let you go into this alone." 

I'm not alone, she means to say, but the fact of the matter is yes, yes she is alone. Marnie has been great, but she doesn't know half the story. Hop is angry with her, Sonia isn't well, and if she hadn't done her big show and tell when she first got here Leon might have been an ally. 

She's a pokemon trainer. A good one, and she's read up on politics, pokemon law, business deals within and outside of Galar but that doesn't mean she has any idea what she's doing. 

(A voice tells her that if Victor were in her place, he would know what to do. He was always the smarter twin.)

"If I asked you to stay the night, would you?" 

His eyes are very soft when he says yes. 

They somehow make it to her room without being seen. He's got on a pair of fake glasses and pulls his hair in a bun, but there's no disguising the fact that he's stupidly tall and towers over everyone. 

He takes a shower and wraps himself in a hotel robe before joining her in bed. And if her fingers clutch him too-tightly, or her tears soak through his robe, he doesn't complain. 

She tells him about the vague plans she'd made before arriving in Galar. Decentralising the powers be in the region, cleaning up after Macro Cosmos, divesting the businesses and creating actual competition to rise up. Fixing up the broken healthcare system, creating jobs that weren't dependent entirely on tourism. When she says it all out loud, she thinks it would really be far easier to catch a legendary and just set the entire region ablaze. She doesn't dare look up, afraid to see his expression. To his credit, Raihan doesn't laugh once, just nods and makes noises of affirmation, and keeps holding her tight. 

When she finally falls asleep, she's still clutching him like a lifeline.  

 

When Raihan wakes in the morning, it takes a moment for his mind to catch up because he’s at first certain that he’s in some kind of waking wet dream. Even if Gloria, who while wearing nothing more than a bathrobe, is drooling on the pillows and has her face crusted over in dried tears. She smells like standard issue gym soap and cigarettes and beer. He shifts to roll himself face front on the bed and wills himself to calm down. 

Her eyes snap open once she feels his weight shift the bed, and she puts a hand to her mouth to cover her mouth. 

“Sleep well, princess?” 

She nods, squeaks, and runs to the bathroom. He hears her furiously brush her teeth while the shower runs, and can’t help but snicker. 

He thinks of the conversation they'd had the last night at the bar, and then the one they had after and he groans again. He'd known he was way over his head with this one, but he realises now he had really no idea.

If he was a smarter man he'd leave right now and pretend last night had never happened. He doesn't. 

When she emerges from the bathroom steam follows her. She’s pulling the ties of her bathrobe firmly shut, and she must think she’s being modest but the wet terrycloth is clinging to every curve she has now. He stays belly down on the bed, even though he has to stretch his neck at an uncomfortable angle to look at her. 

“I didn’t think you would still be here when I woke up.” 

“You asked me to stay.” 

“Why did you listen? No." She shakes her head and runs her hand through her wet hair. This girl faced Milo's Dynamaxed eldegoss not twenty-four hours ago without batting an eye, has just confessed to having political ambitions enough to rival Giovanni Vittore himself (but only for good rather than evil) but is flustered to be caught drooling and with morning breath at the crack of dawn. Not that he’s behaving any less like a green teen at this point though. 

“Why are you here? How did you even get to Turffield so quickly?” 

He can’t bring himself to look at her. “Please don’t get mad,” he groans as he buries his face into the pillows. He doesn't think he'd be able to move fast enough if she decides to throw something at him this time. Not without exposing himself and if it were anyone else he really wouldn’t care but he doesn’t want to go there with Gloria right now and he has a strong feeling that she doesn’t as well. 

He feels the bed dip as she sits down next to him. “What did you do?” 

“I told Milo to let me know once you signed on to his gym.” 

“You were stalking me.”

He tries for casual. “I wanted to see if the Hoenn challenger was really as hot shit as the papers were saying.” 

“Rai.”

Stalking makes me sound awful. Like completely desperate.” 

Raihan.” 

“That poison strategy wasn’t something that could have worked well for the cameras so I’m glad I got to catch it in person and everything.” 

She tugs at his shoulder and forces him to look at her. “I’m not mad.”

“Oh.” He blinks foolishly and she laughs. 

"Were you trying to apologise in person? Even though I pretty much implied that I never wanted to see you again except maybe to punch you?" 

Is it possible to phase through sheets? He thinks it must be, if he wills it hard enough. His dragapult makes it look so easy. 

"No?" 

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“Thanks.” 

“No, you really are.” She’s humming and threading her hands through his twists and Arceus it’s really not helping. She doesn’t smell like a pub anymore, but soap and clean skin. 

“Okay. I believe you,” she finally says. 

He cracks an eye open and rolls slightly to look at her. “What?”

“About everything. That you deleted the photo. That you’re looking out for my best interests. That you’re not just trying to get into my pants. You’re too awful a liar.”

“I am not that bad a liar - "

“How long have you been in love with Leon again?" 

He chokes on his own spit. 

"I'm not - I've never - " 

“I’m just going to put it out there that I’m not going to be your rebound obsession for Leon.”

He winces. He doesn’t have an obsession, he just thinks about Leon a lot. Which is perfectly normal and acceptable when he’s the only trainer in the entire region that he can’t seem to beat, so he’s thinking up tactics and strategies all the time. And yes, he sees when Championship duties are getting down on him and that's when he drags him to the Wild Area to train for a few hours so he can blow off steam and that's just something a good friend does. And maybe he notices when Leon's bulking up before a shoot, or when he's not been eating enough and he'll send him some stupid healthy meal delivery thing and look over the selfie Leon sends him for hours and grin like an idiot over it - 

Alright, maybe he does have a crush. Maybe it's a little closer to obsession. But it can't be all that obvious since Leon hasn't noticed. Even if Piers has. Even if Gloria did within spending minutes with them - ah fuck it. 

(Raihan just can't lie to himself for long, but he's tried so hard for years. Maybe pretending that it doesn't exist will just make it all go away; his version of testing whether his own brain understands emotional permanence. And it does, too well.) 

“You’re not," he says and he is fully aware how weak those words are after his long silence. (But she isn't. He knows that as clearly as he knows he loves Leon - they are two separate things.)

She looks deeply unconvinced and he decides it’s time to change the subject. 

“So are we okay?” 

She bites her lip. “We will be,” she says, and his heart plummets down somewhere between his kidneys, he’d really thought that they were reaching some semblance of friendship, as people did, between digging through archives of news over someone's past and having them sob into his arms after an intense conversation on one's hopes and dreams. Then she grins and leans forward so close he can smell the toothpaste on her breath when she adds “When I head over to your gym and completely destroy you.”

(He's screwed. He knows this as well as he had known he was fucked the first time Leon challenged him to a match.)

“To be clear,” he says, and it’s a valiant effort to sit up and cross his legs quickly enough so he looks less like he’s advertising for a porno, but he’s competitive by nature, how is he not supposed to respond to that challenge? “Just because I want to get on your good side doesn’t mean I’m just going to hand you that badge.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says, and he swears she’s smirking now and unfortunately the expression just makes all remaining blood rush straight south. She grabs some clothes hanging in the wardrobe and makes a show of tightening the belt of her robe again before slipping into the bathroom again to change. He flops back down on the bed with a groan. 

Right. One apology down. The next one should be easier. 

He sighs and pulls up a contact on his phone, then dials the number. It rings long enough that he wonders if he should call another time - like maybe later at night and - 

“What do you want now, asshole?" Piers rasps over the phone, but there doesn't seem to be any real anger there, even if he probably woke him up. 

Raihan really should be getting back to Hammerlocke. He should be checking up on his pokemon, and his gym, and he has at least two shoots lined up tomorrow which means he needs to start dehydrating himself and spending a good part of the afternoon with his manicurist and hairstylist.

Instead, he says “D’you want to meet for lunch?” 

Piers gives his hacking laugh. “Is this you trying to apologise to me?”

“You can pick the place, anything you want.” 

“An actual apology would take less time, y’know.” 

“Maybe I want to see your stupid face for some reason.” 

Another laugh. “Did Leon piss you off again?”

Before the phone call, he had something he wanted to say to Piers, but he really can’t remember what it is now. “No. No he didn’t.” 

"Alright. Lunch at that Kanto place in Motostoke at noon. Marnie should get there by the time we're done."

"Anyone ever told you you have a sister complex, bruv?" 

"Do ya want me to write another song about your unrequited crush?" 

Raihan hangs up before Piers can say anything else. 

Gloria steps out of the shower again, this time in a sweatshirt and leggings and shorts, pulling a cap with the Grass gym logo emblazoned on it down low her face. It's not fair that she's this adorable, it really isn't. 

“I’m checking out soon,” she tells him. “Do you want to use the shower first?” 

He grunts, only because he really doesn’t trust himself to speak, and heads into the bathroom. There really isn’t any point hiding anything at this point, and Gloria definitely sees everything, given the sharp inhale she makes, but she’s not moving any closer to him.

Right. A shower cranked to the coldest possible setting, and he thinks of his incredibly depressing track record of losses against Leon the whole time. When he emerges in a towel, she’s seated on her bed with her bag slung on her back swinging her legs, his clothes in a neatly folded pile next to her. 

“I’m just going to head off first.” She can’t meet his eyes when she says “Thanks again for, well. Everything.” Then she reaches out and gives him the kind of bone-crushing hug that only Leon’s managed so far and yesh, he isn’t getting into a fight with her anytime soon.

"Stay safe," he tells her. She does not reply but only hugs back tighter. 

 

Chapter Text

As she leaves Turffield, Gloria decides she is done being scared. Anger is a much more motivational emotion. 

Fuck Rose. Fuck Macro Cosmos. She's going to finish the gym challenge and kick Leon to the dirt, and she'll deal with the rest later. 

(She definitely isn't this wound up because she's regretting her decision not to kiss Raihan, and then allow that proceed to anything more. She isn't, because leaving the room was the correct and sensible thing to do especially when there are severe conflicts of interest when she hasn't beaten his gym yet.)

(Another part of her whispers that he would have been up for it, she knew, you'd have to be blind not to know. You had him in your bed, that part hisses very unreasonably, and you both were wearing next to nothing, do you not remember how good his mouth felt, how do you pass something like that up?)

She's broken out into a run now. Fuck everything, really. 

Route 5 is a straightforward path to Hulbury. She estimates that she can get there by noon, sign on for Nessa's gym and be done by the evening and make her way to Motostoke in the morning. 

But of course, nothing's ever so simple. 

First, there's the two intrepid reporters who are hanging around the area who want to test her skills up close on camera. She has to admire their tenacity, they’re jittery with coffee and have clearly hung around the area all night for this story so of course she says yes to the double battle. The klink and helioptile are a nuisance since type advantage, and she hasn't had enough time to teach her pokemon enough alternative movesets, but Tempo seeds them both with leech seeds and Liberty sprinkles a good dose of stun spores on the helioptile so the electric type's movements are at least slowed, before using confusion enough times that the helioptile begins to shock itself. Tempo uses low kick repeatedly on the klink, darting in and out to avoid its movements before finishing it off with branch poke. 

The reporters are impressed enough by the match, and ask after her Flashgram promising to tag her when the story goes live, and are then horrified to learn that she hasn't even begun to post about her pokemon challenge journey. They then begin giving her a crash course for running a good social media account, starting with a wefie with the three of them together that they then edit away to get rid of her limp hair and eye bags. She listens dutifully, resigning herself to the fact that she needs to have an active social media presence, remembering what Raihan told her about his account. 

And speak of the devil, or rather, thinking of him is apparently enough because he likes her post within minutes of her putting it up and sends her a DM. 

someones getting friendly w e enemy 

Believe me, I don't know how this happened, she sends back, but only after she’s agonised over the answer for a good five minutes. Of course, he has no such anxiety because he replies immediately. 

u type like an old woman 

And your texts make me want to throw you into a room full of grammar books and leave you there until you learn to type properly. 

A moment, then.
dungeons r more piers thing 
but 4 u i will
😏

She bends over to scream through gritted teeth for so long that a nearby stufful wanders over to observe her breakdown. When she finally runs out of breath, she starts running again. 

And really, at the speed she's going she should really be at Hulbury in no time at all, but then she passes a couple of hooligans yelling at a poor bedraggled looking scientist type - with the uncombed hair and the thick glasses to prove he fits the role. 

She stops because of course she does, she spent all her childhood punching bullies who so much as breathed wrong at her blipbug of a brother, it's ingrained in her now. 

"Oi," she calls out. "Sod off and leave the man alone." 

And of course that just makes them puff up and start yelling at her - they've got Spikemuth accents and are dressed in ripped clothing and studs, like Piers fanboys. She'd bet their lineup consist entirely entirely of dark types - and yes it turns out she's right. A Galarian zigzagoon (she really misses the Hoenn variety and their cuteness, but that's probably because she's seen a few thousand zigagoons in the Wild Area at this point), a thievul, and holy Moltres a sableye - where did the trainer get hold of that? 

(She knows that sableyes don't actually steal souls. They creep her out anyway.) 

She sends out Orion, Tempo, and Seriyu, because she likes to mix things up. She doesn't wait for the laughter to die down before the magikarp blasts the zigzagoon with a hydro pump. The zigzagoon does not get back up.  

The thievul isn't that much harder - a few well-placed punches from Tempo and it goes down. 

Sableyes though, are remarkably resilient and favoured by top teams for a reason - because of its ridiculous immunity to three different types. 

"Confuse th' shit out of this bitch!" Its trainer glitters with piercings and Arceus, is that a loudhailer the other trainer is pulling out? And a poster of Marnie?

She snaps a photo of them and makes a note to send that to Marnie afterwards.

"Evasion tactics!" she calls out to her team. Orion dodges the confuse ray easily and Tempo's slammed up a shield of vines to block the ray from himself and Seriyu. She recalls the magikarp, knowing he can't do much in this fight. 

"Seed it," she tells Tempo, who scatters leech seeds around the ghost type. The afternoon sun beats down hard on them for which she's grateful for - the battle would be that much harder if this was happening at night. Orion lets out a screech as the sableye twists around the seedlings that sprout around its feet and flinches. 

"Branch poke," she tells Tempo, who hastens towards the sableye - she makes a mental note that he's already begun to slow down because of his bulk, so she's going to have to work on his defence and close combat attacks. 

She realises her mistake once the thawckey gets close enough, and the sableye reaches up to touch Tempo's noonday shadow. 

"Shadow sneak," the trainer hisses, triumphant. 

"Orion, protect!" The corvisquire dives down and throws up the shield, but it's already too late, Tempo is shuddering from the sableye's touch. 

"C'mom Tempo, get it back with vine whip! Orion, brave bird!" 

The combined assault is enough, but she knows she's going to feel sick until she can scrub the sight of the sableye's teeth out of her mind, and how it looked as it bent over her thawckey. She scoops to pick Tempo up, and yes, he's shaking. 

Another mental note to do more training at night against ghost types. She really needs to add a fairy type to her team as well. She remembers that there are swirlix in the area but she's always been partial to gradevoir - maybe on her next trip to the Wild Area. 

The trainers are grumbling, but they hand over crumpled wads of cash for the battle. 

"So who are you all? The Marnie fan club?" 

They gasp, and she wants to laugh, it's unbearably theatrical. 

"How dare ya show Miss Marnie so little respect!" The thievul and zigzagoon's owner has a beer belly that stretches out his ripped shirt and moves in an alarming fashion while he gesticulates emotionally - and ugh, no his belly button really wasn’t something she needed to see. 

"Bruv, I fink she's a gym challenger," the sableye trainer says. 

"So what if I am?" 

They actually huff at her and glare. "Miss Marnie'll show you, she will!" With that, they take off in the other direction. 

What. 

"You alright, mister?" she asks the tired-looking man. 

He mops his face with a dirty tissue. "Yes, yes I am! Thank you so much for your help miss!" The man is all smiles as he gestures at the shiny bicycle he's holding. 

"Please, take this as thanks for sorting out those hooligans! You're a gym challenger, aren't you? You'd need this bike way more than I would! It's already powered by a rotom."

And then he takes off as well, and she's left alone with the bike. 

What. 

 

It feels like every time Hop runs into Gloria, she looks tired and dirty and pissed off at the world. (Or maybe she's pissed at him. He's never sure these days, after spending years being told Leon wasn't avoiding him, he's just being too sensitive, but after finding out that was true too he has a weird relationship with his instincts now.) 

"Ria, over here!" he calls while waving, and he isn't sure, but did she hesitate before wheeling her bicycle over? 

He knows the awkwardness between them is - well a lot of it is Gloria's fault, her and her weird revenge scheme with Lee back in Postwick - but he knows that he's to blame as well, with all his own inability to make up his mind on whether or not he’s going to be angry at her in public. 

"Hi Hop," she says. Up close, she looks exhausted, and more than a little nervous. He feels a twinge of guilt at that. 

"How are your pokemon doing? Here, let me heal them," he says, reaching for the pokeball at her belt, and then realises that he's being too forward again. It's hard to remember sometimes that they're not friends anymore. 

She relaxes, very slightly, and then slowly releases her pokemon from their pokeballs. 

"Is that Seriyu?"

"Yup."

"How hasn't he evolved yet? What a beast!" And he's really not saying that to be nice, the magikarp is maybe three times larger than he remembered him, and still flopping. 

"No clue, he seems to want to just stay a magikarp."

He heals up her pokemon in semi-comfortable silence until she finally breaks it. 

"Why are you here?" 

"Sonia's having dinner with Nessa, and I didn't want to intrude, so I thought I'd come out here and wait - I mean, come here to train." 

He knows he's blushing, and she's looking at him hard as though she knows what he'd actually meant to say. So he covers it up the best he can, and of course the first thing that pops in his head is to blurt "D'you want to battle?"

She just looks at him and laughs, and it's not a mocking gesture, but feels completely normal. "Did you just heal my pokemon so you could challenge me?" 

"Maybe." He smiles so she knows he's joking and truly, this friends-but-not-really situation is awkward.

Gloria rolls her eyes and then punches his arm. "Well, you're going to regret that, because you're going to get completely steamrolled, mate!" 

And just like that, it's like all the weirdness never happened. 

They used to have mock pokemon battles as children. It was a game they played - writing out the names of random pokemon and throwing them into a hat, picking six out at random and battling them against each other. If there was a type advantage, or if you could think of a move you thought it could learn that had a type advantage quickly enough, you won. They always descended into shouting matches, especially when duo types were concerned. If Lee was around, he would be dragged in to officiate the matches. 

"Three on three?" 

"You're on!" 

She sends out her butterfree first and he does the same with his wooloo. And of course, the first thing she does is to poison the everloving shit out of his wooloo. 

"When are you going to stop with that?" he asks, horrified, and she's grinning. 

"Sorry Shearlock," she sings.

Well, Shearlock has his own tricks as well. The wooloo launches himself from the ground once the butterfree gets close enough and headbutts the butterfree. The butterfree squeals as it crashes down into the ground, and Shearlock finishes it with another slam, before keeling over to the ground from the poison. 

Gloria pumps her hand in the air as she recalls her butterfree, and her grin is a savage thing. 

They send out their corvisquires against each other - his just newly evolved, after facing Nessa's gym challenge - and he starts to wonder if he should worry. His raboot has the type advantage, but he's not comfortable about his chances if it Gloria's corvisquire wins, leaving itwo against one. He's wondering if he has enough time to switch out, but then Gloria's corvisquire - almost twice as large as his, and will definitely be a vicious beast once it is a corviknight - swats down his pokemon without any trace of effort. 

"Don't start getting cocky now!" he calls out, more so he out of habit than anything else, just like they did as children and he would have one pokemon left against her three when they played at battles with each other. And just like when they were children she just rolls her eyes, same as when they taunted each other in Postwick's fields. 

She recalls her corvisquire and releases her thawckey just as he sends his raboot out. 

"You know how this ends, Hop," Gloria grins. 

"Speak for yourself," he shouts back. "Come on Scotch! Hit them with a growl!" 

His raboot does that, and he sees the thawckey slow for a split second at the noise.  

"That's it!" he encourages. "Follow it up with an ember!" 

"Tempo, vine whip!"

He knows he's lost the second he sees how winded raboot is from the attack. What in Arceus' name is she feeding that thawckey? "Rally back!" he calls anyway. "Don't let up on the ember!" 

The raboot continues spitting flames but the thawckey dodges the attack easily, and closes in the distance between the two pokemon to land a punch on the raboot - and that's it, Scotch falls over from the blow. 

"Good match Hop," Gloria says, and her smile is almost apologetic, and he really hates this awkwardness. 

"Pfft, I'll get you next time, Ria!" Hesitantly, he slings an arm around her shoulder but she doesn't shrug him off. "Winner can buy us both dinner at Hulbury."

She beams at him and really, it feels the world has fixed itself. 

"C'mon, we should take a selfie to commemorate this battle," he says. He wants photographic evidence that this is the moment things went back to normal. 

"You're just doing this for Flashgram followers, aren't you?" 

He mock gasps. "Gloria, we should celebrate the beauty of our friendship! This photo will commemorate the moment!" It sounds so cheesy when he puts it out like that not he only hopes she thinks he's being facetious. Then he adds "And hell yes, we're the two most promising trainers on this Challenge, the fanbase is gonna go crazy."

Gloria laughs. "Maybe you've got a fanbase Hop, but I don't." 

"After your battle with Milo? Are you kidding me?" He shakes his head and decides he'll educate her on the heights (or depths, he really can't tell sometimes) of Galar's internet later. "C'mon Ria, smile!" 

When he uploads the photo, he captions it "Postwick rivals!" and tries not to think of how Victor would have fit in the space. 

 

Gloria's phone starts buzzing as Hop heals up her pokemon. When she checks it, she almost falls over in shock. 

Raihan has sent her a selfie. There is nothing lewd or inappropriate about it, but he's sweaty and grinning and just clearly fresh from out of the gym and the tank he's wearing barely hides anything. 

ok i'm sry i went too far 
nice photo with baby Leon 
just prepping for a shoot 2morrow 
how do i look 

Good, she thinks. Absurdly obscenely good - but of course she is never going to tell him that. He doesn't look real to her most of the time, like a celebrity just stepped off the screen - which of course he is. 

I'm not going to answer that since you're clearly just fishing for compliments, she types passive-aggressively. Then adds And his name is Hop 

awww
i only want to know what you think 
tell hop i said hi 
wru now?

She and Hop had stopped at the suspension bridge just outside of Hulbury for their battle. She snaps a photo of Hammerlocke in the distance and sends it over to him. Dusk is falling now, and the city's lights have gone up. Meanwhile, the Wild Area stretches below her. She sees the red beams of Dynamax dens dotting the landscape, and she has a panic attack. 

At least, she thinks its a panic attack. 

She can't breathe. And she thinks she's panicking. 

"Ria? Shit, Ria you okay?" 

Her phone slips from between her fingers and crashes onto the bridge and from the way her knees are feeling she thinks she's going to follow after. 

She remembers the roaring sound of the dynamax dens. Liberty's screaming - oh the screaming. It morphs into something deeper, softer, but in no less pain. 

Help, she wants to cry. 

"Ria?" 

Hop's face swims in front of her and she'll never say this out loud but he really does look like Leon. Maybe Leon if he hadn't won the Championships ever and doesn't have a team of stylists taking care of his every angle.

She's vaguely aware that she's half lying on the ground now, Hop cradling her head. 

" 'm okay," she says, tongue thick in her mouth. She tries to sit up but almost falls over again. Her body feels like she's just run a marathon, and then some. Every part of her body hurts, and her head can barely focus on Hop. 

"Don't be stupid, you're not! What the fuck was that? Did you have a seizure or something?" 

He's shouting, and she supposes there must be a good reason for it but right now she just wants to murder him for it. 

"Hop." Speaking is so hard. " 'm gonna need you to be quiet for a minute, okay?" 

Something touches her hand gently and she realises its Orion resting a wing in her lap. Something shifts behind him, and she realises its Tempo, laying out a circle of seedlings around her. Liberty flutters down and watches her closely. 

She wants to cry. Victor never did get to experience any of this. 

Somehow it always goes back to him. 

"Give me a minute," she tells Hop. He's pushing a bottle of water at her, which she takes and swallows half of in one gulp. "Then we'll get to Hulbury, okay?" 

"Take all the time you need."

He shifts and reaches for something. Then he waves a phone in front of her. "Um, Gloria? What's this?" 

She crosses her eyes slightly to focus. The screen isn't cracked, thank goodness, and then she realises the conversation its showing - which is still ongoing as another mispelt message comes in. And Hop might not always be the brightest bulb in the room but even he can put things together, especially when she's saved his contact as Rai. With a heart. Because she clearly was not thinking when she got up in the morning. 

"Oh." Fuck him. Really, fuck him. "It's not what it looks like, I swear."

She feels his laughter shaking through his body but at least he has the decency to not laugh out loud. 

"Do you want me to let your boyfriend know about the debilitating head injury you just got?" 

"What head injur - he is not my boyfriend." She twists to glare at him. "Who even gave you permission to look at my phone?" 

"I'm sorry!" And he does sound contrite, she'll give him that. "It was just right there when I picked it up." A pause and she allows herself a second to hope that he'll not make any further mention of the dick who won't stop blowing up her phone - she still hears her phone vibrating in Hop's hands - when he says "Oh god, his fans are going to kill you." 

Chapter Text

Raihan knows he's a good looking, attractive man. He's literally got millions of thirsty followers on several social media channels telling him so. He runs the last gym, and does it well, separating the chaff from the wheat every season. Sure, he's never been Champion, but he's known as the second strongest trainer in the whole Galar region. 

So Raihan's not in the habit of being jealous. Or insecure. 

(This is a lie. He'd spent years being an anxious insecure little bitch about Leon - what if he was beaten by someone else first and Raihan ends up being dethroned as his greatest rival, what if Leon started dating someone else first and Raihan would have to sit through conversations on date suggestions and the like. And yes, Raihan has had his flings, not the least including Piers, who is not only a good friend and a colleague, and yes he's a flaming hypocrite but he's only starting to realise now the reason why he never even thought about having a real relationship was because he was always waiting on Leon. That his greatest fear would be that if he finally did start dating someone, any chance of Leon noticing him would be finally erased.) 

But his insecurities aside, he knows Gloria. (He thinks. He hopes.) They've had a rough start, but he wants to think she's started to see she can depend on him. Just a little. And for all her whinging about his texting, he was pretty sure she liked the attention. Arceus knows he would have gone nuts wandering around the routes by himself if he and Leon didn't call and text each other on their Gym Challenges as much as they'd did.

(Another part of him reminds himself that they were ten and twelve respectively at that point while Gloria is a seasoned, competent trainer and doesn't need to be babied.)

But he'd suddenly gotten a bad feeling when she didn't respond to his texts. (Like the time he had a bad feeling and it turned out Leon had gotten separated from his pokemon just before a sandstorm started. Or when he couldn't sleep and arrived at his gym early only to find that Sebastian had fallen during his practice the night before and had passed out with a broken leg.) He listens to his bad feelings. (He jokingly calls then his dragon instincts with Leon.) 

So he calls her before he can overthink his decision to. 

The phone rings long enough that he thinks about trying again later, but then someone picks up. 

"Hello?" 

"Leon?" It sounds an awful lot like him. And of course that's when his scumbag brain begins conjuring all sorts of really graphic scenarios of Gloria and Leon making up whatever grudge they'd held. 

"Oh no, uh, I'm his brother, I suppose I do sound a little like him but I - " 

Oh. Baby Leon. That's even worse. He knows the allure of a rival all too well. 

"Put Gloria on her phone." And so that he sounds at least a degree less hostile he adds through gritter teeth "Please."

"Um, now isn't a really good time, she's resting and - " 

More graphic scenarios automatically conjured up by his brain. Resting? They'd looked close in that photo Hop had put up but surely it would have taken some time for them to get to a hotel in Hulbury - unless they didn't even wait for a hotel, his brain helpfully supplies. 

Off the phone, he can hear Gloria shout "Give me the phone right now, Hopscotch." 

They'd moved to nicknames already. What the absolute fuck was happening. 

(A sensible, still-functioning part of his brain tells him that he is overreacting. The rest of his salandit brain shrieks harder.) 

"Hello?" 

"I hope I'm not intruding," he says, and thank all the deities he sounds nowhere as panicked as he feels. 

"What were you calling about?" 

"Nothing, I- " Had a bad feeling? Spent the entire day thinking about you? He sounds obsessive and insane, even to himself. "I got worried, is all." 

"Because I didn't reply your texts for a few minutes?" 

He coughs. "I swear I'm not usually this crazy." 

She is silent, and he completely expects her to hang up on him, after all, she gives off a sort of I will treat any attempt at caring for me as an insult to my independence vibe (or really, she's just always been rightfully defensive towards him) but to his surprise, she doesn't. 

"Thanks," she says softly instead. "I really needed that." 

And only then does she hang up on him. 

 

Hop won't stop grinning. It's infuriating. 

It's like the time he caught her sneaking out of the house to play with the wooloo at night. He knows he has something on her but he won't actually bring it up until she does. And just give her those smug, ever so punishable sidelong looks the whole time. 

She can't decide which is worse, the embarrassment at his fussing over her panic attack, or this.

He looks away from the path on Route 5 again - Arceus she hopes he trips over a zigzagoon, it would only serve him right - to shoot her another look, his lips pressed tight against each other. 

Gloria breaks first. "What." 

"Sooooo." His smile stretches wide over his entire face and her hands reflexively clench into a fist at her side. She reminds herself that it's really not nice to punch him when they've effectively just made up with each other, and he's carrying her bag and her bike because he didn't think she was well enough to carry her own shit. 

"Gloriaaaaaa." 

He's being nice, she tells herself. He is. 

"Gloriaaaaaaaaaaa." 

"You're not going to let this go, are you?" 

"Nope." He pops the 'p' sound in his mouth obnoxiously loudly.

"What." 

"How did you arrive in Galar less than two weeks ago and now have bloody Raihan calling you?"

"Yeah, believe me, he's a pain in the arse," Gloria mutters, but even she doesn't believe herself.

Hop is practically vibrating next to her. "Are you dating?" 

"No!" 

"Well, he almost took my head off when I answered the phone and thought I was Leon - " 

"He what?" 

"I'm not even exaggerating, he got incredibly quiet and polite, y'know the way a feral pokemon will right before it tries to tear your head off - " 

Gloria tries not to care. She doesn't. 

She can feel the blush creep up on her cheeks anyway. 

Hop stops and turns to her. "You're really not comfortable talking about this, aren't you?

She turns her head to avoid looking at him. "No." 

"Okay okay, I'll stop then." 

Huh. The old Hop would have continued until she caved and told him everything. 

"But if you ever do feel like talking about it - please I gotta know." 

She laughs. Yes, still the same old Hop. 

"Let's just check into the Trainer hotel and get dinner." 

"Fish and chips?" 

"Arceus yes, you will not believe how sick I am of curry." 

"I think I can imagine." 

 

When she signs up at the Hulbury gym, she expects to be given a slot for the first battle in the morning, finish her battle before Hop rolls out of bed and checks out of the hotel so they can all leave and go on her merry way to Motostoke. 

But of course, life always has other plans. 

"The 7pm slot?" she repeats. "Why? Is the stadium being used all day?" Hop had shown her the official pages with the Gym Challengers information, and most people were already done with the Water gym. It didn't make sense for the gym to be booked out. 

The receptionist shrugs. "For maximum viewings. Also gives enough time for people to head down and watch the match." He shrugs. "You're lucky you're popular, Trainer Victoria. Should net you some sponsorships, if you give a good show. Would probably be a good idea to invest in a haircut or something before the match." He wrinkles his nose ever so slightly, and she can't help but be offended. 

Hulbury is an old city, with as much history as Hammerlocke and Circhester. Galar had needed a way to trade wool and crops from the southern parts, so those were usually floated down the river Hulbury, where ships would take them to Kalos to trade. The marketplace is centuries old, as is the lighthouse.  

You wouldn't guess it anymore though, not from the outpouring of cute Flashgrammable cafes and useless tourist souvenirs. 

They've built a carnival along the pier. It's closed now, but she can still smell the stale popcorn. It's strong up with all sorts of lights and must make a pretty picture at night. 

She hates it all so much. 

She lets Orion out to stretch his wings, and he immediately begins to bother the nearby wingulls. Tempo is now too big to rest on her shoulder, but he races along the piper's railings and seems excited at the new smells. 

She seats herself at a bench near the lighthouse and takes in the seabreeze. 

"Am I being a bitch?" she asks Tempo. He picks at his fur and shrugs. 

"Helpful." 

They'd always asked their parents about going to Hulbury, even if it was just a short trip. Victor had always wanted to see the ocean. 

"It's bloody beautiful," she mutters, wishing as always, that he was there with her.  

She can only mope around for so long though. She has a battle to plan for. 

She also can't help but think of her quickly depleting wallet. She needs to be careful with her funds, and camp out tonight. No point getting used to a bed. 

There's a billboard up with a giant Nessa staring down at her, advertising some clothing company. The gym leader is stunning, with stupidly shiny hair that cascades down her back and a figure that makes Gloria feel like an overgrown mankey. 

She closes her eyes and waits for the moment to pass. Then she pulls up her phone and looks up the salons in the city. 

 

By evening, she's as ready as she thinks she will be. She'd headed out near the beach with her pokemon and ran drills in the water, then with some trainers who were looking for an early morning workout. She went out to Route 5 again and made sure her butterfree was well-fed and primed for battle. 

She got her hair cut and styled and she wants to pretend she can't see the receptionist's smirk of approval. 

"Good luck," Sonia tells her before she heads into the challengers' locker room. Hop just throws himself onto her and hugs her for a very long time. 

She checks her phone for the twentieth or so time for Raihan's own good luck text to her - though she isn't sure if a ur gonna crush it counts. (It made her smile anyway. She supposes it does.) 

She doesn't know why she's so nervous. It's just a battle. Even the gym challenge is nothing unfamiliar or outlandish - she’s not trying to herd chewtle at the very least. She runs around the expanse of the gym flipping switches and beating trainers until she comes face-to-face with Nessa, and really, it’s not even as tough as it was on the beach in the morning. This is still only the second gym, after all. 

Gloria has never been more conscious of the fact that she’s covered in sweat while standing in her gym challenge kit in front of Nessa, who looks like a goddess freshly sprung out of the sea. Her hair and makeup are perfect, and her bare skin is glistening with oil. 

There was always a reason why water gyms, like Misty’s in Cerulean, were always popular with the viewers. 

“Welcome, honoured Gym Challenger.” 

So yes, Gloria’s nervous because Nessa is basically the walking epitome of what a strong, gorgeous trainer can look like. Even if she knows Nessa’s just as primped up and beautified as Raihan is. A part of her wonders if there had been anything between the gym leader and Raihan - arguably two of the most attractive gym leaders. 

Focus. She needs to focus. 

She nods stiffly at Nessa’s acknowledgement, the empty fighting words scripted for television, and walks over to her spot on the field. The floor of the stadium opens up until there’s a large pool at their feet. And then the music starts and the crowd goes wild. 

Nessa uses a goldeen of all things as her first pokemon. Gloria sends out Liberty again and then has the butterfree scatter poison into the pool until the crystal clear water turns murky. The goldeen flops out of the pool and from there, it’s a quick couple of gusts before it faints. 

Then the pool clears itself of the poison, and fresh water is poured in again. And Nessa sends out an arrokuda. 

Gloria blinks and stares at the impassive gym leader from across the field. Why - a palpitoad would be a far better choice since she could just poison the pool again. Even a pyukumuku would present itself a greater challenge. 

“Getting scared already, trainer?” Nessa asks. 

Gloria doesn’t even bother acknowledging the comment and has her butterfree use gust in the pool - which effectively becomes a whirlpool, trapping the arrokuda inside of the water. More poison powder, and the pokemon faints shortly after.

Nessa doesn’t even look phased as she recalls the arrokuda and takes out a third dive ball. Something about the expression on her face makes Gloria tense. 

She’d guessed Nessa would use her drednaw - not her Championship drednaw Granite, but one of its many spawns.

She’s completely wrong. 

The drednaw gigamantaxes, its body craggy and bigger than a normal dynamaxed drednaw, standing up on it hind legs. She recognises the famed scars that run through its limbs, the shell that remains as pristine as ever despite the multiple battles it has been in.  

Nessa smiles for the first time all evening, her face splitting into a feral grin. 

"This isn't a problem for you, Hoenn, is it?" Nessa raises one perfectly tweezed eyebrow and Gloria feels all the hairs on her neck prickle. 

But in a strange way, this Gloria understands. Not a ridiculous show trial for the fans, but a challenge she can actually sink her teeth into.

There is no time to answer with a witty quip. She has to work. 

“Liberty, use supersonic!” 

“Granite, Max Darkness!” 

Liberty is still faster, screeching out an attack that is heard even through the roar of the crowd. The drednaw blinks slowly after the attack hits and staggers. 

Gloria is already running a dozen different strategies in her head and knows that the only way to win would be to wait out the Dynamax effect. Until then, she can only buy time. 

“Scorch earth tactics again!” she yells. Liberty begins her combination of poison powder and gust, poisoning the water again.

“That’s not going to work,” Nessa smirks. “Max Geyser!” 

The water crashes down over Liberty, who falls from the impact. It begins to rain in the stadium, the poison slowly washing out from the field. 

She recalls Liberty and switches to Tempo. “Seed it,” she shouts, and thank Arceus her thwackey still retains some of its former speed. The leech seeds spray out from across the open field, winding themselves around the drednaw’s limbs and up around its shell, its open mouth. The drednaw roars in anger and begins chewing the green leaves between its jaws.  

“Cute,” Nessa smirks. “But you should know leech seed isn’t going to save you.” 

Gloria doesn’t answer, just switches out Tempo for Orion and waits for Nessa’s next move. Given the type advantage, she guesses it could be Max Rockfall, but she has a strong sense that the gym leader will use Max Geyser instead for the boost in attack the rainfall will bring once the Dyanamax effect wears off. 

She’s right. 

“Max Geyser!”

“Reversal!” 

Nessa’s eyes widen as the corvisquire makes contact with the softer flesh around the drednaw’s face, claws out and raking through its skin. Gloria’s not foolish enough to think that would do much damage, but it was all that was needed. The dynamax effect wearing out, the drednaw shrinks down to its normal size. Which is still many times larger than the corvisquire.

“You’re definitely not a green trainer,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean victory is yours yet!” 

“Orion, reversal again!” 

The corvisquire speeds down and crashes against the drednaw. 

“Jaw lock.” 

Faster than she would have thought possible, the drednaw opens its jaw and catches onto a wing. Orion goes limp immediately, and she knows he’s fainted. 

She expects the drednaw to spit out corvisquire so she can recall him. 

The drednaw does not. She hears a crunch of broken bone, and screaming. 

Let him go.” She realises the scream is hers. 

Nessa waits for a lull in the audience’s cheering, before signalling to the drednaw to finally spit out the limp corvisquire’s body. 

“Your move, trainer.” 

She forces herself to take a deep breath. Recalls the corvisquire as she watches the drednaw’s movement’s closely. Blood drips down the wounds inflicted by Orion’s claws. 

Time. Time is all she needs. Nessa will pay for that little show herself. 

She has another look at the drednaw, praying for a sign that her strategy is taking effect. She blinks, and yes, the drednaw’s skin has turned ever-so-slightly green. 

“Tempo, your turn!” The thwackey leaps out onto the field and immediately builds a wall of vines around it as a shield, as he’d been trained to before the battle. 

“Granite, liquidate!” 

“Dodge it!” The vine writhes and moves, covering the thwackey and taking the brunt of the water. Tempo takes the cue to move up close to the drednaw, tapping his rhythm for vine whip as he does so, and letting more vines burst from the ground to whip against the drednaw’s open flesh. 

She keeps watching the drednaw as it roars. It takes one step, and then another towards Tempo, then goes very still. 

The crowd goes silent, and even Nessa’s impassive face is showing some kind of expression, her brows knitting closely. 

From the drednaw’s slack jaw, small vines begin to creep out. 

Finally, Gloria allows herself to smile. 

And the drednaw collapses. 

Gloria truly wishes that gym challengers are allowed their phones in the stadium, if only so she could preserve Nessa’s stunned expression. It’s one that is too unflattering to stay on the match’s footage when it goes through the editing team. 

She crosses the stadium to meet Nessa, and if their handshake is a little too firm to be polite, neither of them says anything. 

“Congratulations,” Nessa says, looking thoroughly unhappy. 

“Do you usually bring out your Championship pokemon for a simple gym challenge?” Gloria asks. Nessa’s grip on her hand tightens ever so slightly before she pulls away and passes her the water badge. 

“We know you’re not just a simple gym challenger, do we?” she says, her eyes narrowed. 

Gloria walks back into her locker room, feeling thoroughly unsettled. She changes back into her civilian clothes again. Orion will probably have to spend the night in the pokemon center. 

To her surprise, Nessa walks in to the changing room just as she’s about to leave. She crosses her arms as she leans back against a locker and eyes Gloria like a liepard sizing up its prey. 

“It wasn’t my choice to use Granite during the battle,” she says. “I’m not in the habit of bullying gym challengers.” 

Gloria freezes. “Then whose?” 

“You should know.” 

Macro Cosmos? Chairman Rose himself? Those are the first thoughts that flash through her head, but it’s too crazy, too outlandish. She’s been keeping her head down, just going through the gym challenges. 

“Why are you telling me this?” 

“Because you should have some kind of warning for the hell you’re about to step into.” 

“Why do you hate me so much if you’re going to go out of your way to do this?” 

Nessa's eyes flicker. She tosses her perfect glossy hair, and Gloria misses her own long hair, all of a sudden. 

“I was asked to take you down a peg, and I’ll admit I was quite happy to. Milo told me a little about your temper tantrum," she says, her voice as cold as a snowstorm. "And perhaps he was kind enough to give you a history lesson on Galar, but I'm not. I know that just because you’ve spent some time away from Galar you now think you’re cleverer than the rest of us. Better than the rest of us.” 

That’s not true.” 

“Maybe. Maybe it isn’t. You’ve been hostile since you walked into my gym, and you walk around making your contempt for the way Galararians live pretty clear, so I’m not sure if you’re projecting if you’re talking about my hating you.” 

Gloria wants to protest, but something in her pauses. It’s true. Everything she’s done since coming back to Galar has been to compare the region to Hoenn, how Hoenn has just been better. She hasn’t even thought about how everyone else has had to actually live, not until Milo talked about Turffield.  

Nessa smiles thinly, and offers her hand out to Gloria. 

“For whatever you think my opinion’s worth, you are a good trainer,” she says. “Good luck on the rest of your journey.” 

Gloria takes her hand, and this time, there isn’t any weird tension when they shake. 

Nessa also hands her a bundle of clothing. The Water Gym uniform. “You can avoid the press with this,” she says. Gloria thanks her, and changes into it once she’s alone in the locker room again. She pulls out her phone to finally check it, expecting a barrage of messages. Of course, she’s right. 

gloria 
what the absolute fuck gloria
there is no fucking way you bitch slapped that monster with some leech seeds and a vine whip
what the fuck
gloriaaaaaaa 

She rolls her eyes but hits the dial button. “Hello?” 

“About bloody time, babe - your match almost crashed the internet.” 

“Hello to you too.” She pauses. “Did you just call me babe?”  

“Did you like it?” 

She can’t quite decide, really so she doesn't answer. At least Raihan doesn't make it awkward by prolonging the silence. 

“How did you do it?” Raihan demands. 

“Toxic leech seeds,” she says, grinning. That much is going to be clear after the drednaw’s looked after at the pokemon center. 

There’s silence on the other end until “How.” 

“Nuh uh, can’t give away all my secrets. Still have a few more gyms to go.”  

He makes a sound of pure frustration, and really, she wishes he was there so she could gloat in front of him.

It had been simple. While dual poison and grass types like ivysaur can be trained to secrete poisonous leech seeds, a pure grass type like thawckey can’t. What she has been doing, is to up Tempo’s toxin resistance until his plants can grow in the most stubborn conditions. Mix his seeds before and during the battle itself with a good pinch of Liberty’s toxins meant that they could get the invasive seeds to bring the toxin into the drednaw’s system.

She’s used poison tactics for the last two gyms and knows she needs to switch things up. But she couldn’t think of any other way her team could have stood a chance against a championship level drednaw. 

The water gym uniform does help her avoid the press, even if the expanse of exposed skin alarms her slightly. She’s out of the gym and headed to the pokemon center, and has just sent a text for Hop and Sonia to meet her there when a tall blonde woman with a bored expression and a sulky mouth blocks her way. 

“Trainer Victoria, the Chairman would like to invite you to dinner.” 

The Chair - oh. She spots the Chairman in the distance, expensively suited and with his television-ready placid expression on his face. He gives her a little wave, as though it is completely normal for him to be there. 

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Gloria instinctively takes a step away from them both. 

"I can't,” she says. “I need to go to the pokemon center, and my friends - “ 

“Your friends are also welcome to join. The Captain’s Table will be able to accommodate two more.” 

Rose’s voice is quiet, pleasant, somehow cutting through the noise of the evening crowd.

She remembers what Raihan had said about Rose’s ability to destroy her entire life. As much as she’d like backup, she’s not going to drag Hop or Sonia into this. 

“I think they have other plans.” Gloria smiles tightly. “Let me just leave my team at the pokemon center first, and I’ll meet you at the restaurant.” 

“Ah yes, your corvisquire was quite injured during the match.” Rose’s smile does not reach his eyes. “We’ll see you soon then.” He inclines his head ever so slightly, and a blonde man wearing sunglasses - why and at night, she doesn’t know - peels away from the rest of the crowd to watch them silently. She gets the threat.

“Don’t keep the Chairman waiting,” Oleana says coldly. Gloria vaguely remembers her now. Olenna? Oleanna? The secretary who is always seen by the Chairman’s side, and who definitely exudes a not-so-secretly-evil aura. 

She walks quickly to the pokemon center, conscious of the sunglasses man following her the whole way, her brain whirring, trying to figure out what best to do. 

She taps a message to Hop. Sorry something’s come up. I’ll catch up with you later tonight. 

And another one to Raihan. Rose just asked me to join him for dinner at the Captain’s Table.

His response is immediate. if i dont get a text frm u in 1hr im flying down. 

Do you think he's going to make me disappear? She's not sure if she's joking or not. She mutes her phone before their replies can make her panic. 

Deep breaths. They're meeting in a public place. She hasn't done anything wrong at all. 

Except that you've explicitly rejected his sponsorship from the beginning, a snide voice tells her. It sounds very much like Victor, when he's in his sanctimonious I-am-your-big-brother-of-course-I-am-correct mood. Except that you made that ridiculous show of throwing out your dynamax band before Milo's battle like a drama queen - what on earth did you hope to achieve with that? Except he told Nessa to intimidate you for your match. 

Eat shit and die, she thinks, without any real heat, then realises what she has just thought. 

It has been six years. Why can't she have imaginary arguments with her dead twin without feeling like her lungs are collapsing in her chest? 

At the pokemon centre she has Liberty and Tempo healed and pockets their balls in a discreet pocket in her jacket. The nurse confirms that Orion has to be left overnight, and then brightly congratulates her on her battle. She manages a smile and asks for directions to The Captain's Table. Mentions a little more loudly than needed that she's meeting Chairman Rose for dinner about a sponsorship deal. 

Breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs everywhere. 

The Captain's Table is the kind of restaurant where someone in a suit politely offers to take your coat at the entrance while still being managing to ooze condescension from his very pores. She keeps her jacket on over the Water Gym uniform. A part of her is uncomfortable showing off her midriff and legs in the posh restaurant. Another part of her is savagely pleased. Eat the rich, and all that. Besides, that snooty secretary had told her not to keep the Chairman waiting. 

She is ushered to a private room that overlooks the sea. Soft lighting, dark wooden decor, a window that takes up most of the wall which overlooks the sea - all meant to resemble the inside of a ship. It should be tacky, she thinks bitterly, but somehow it all looks like the kind of place where you need a ballgown to dine in. Rose looks like he's grown out of the surroundings, pristine suit and coiffed hair that she knows is a bitch to maintain while playing with a glass of wine and tapping at his phone. Oleana hovers at his side. He makes a gesture for her for her to sit.

There are only three things on the menu. None of the prices are listed, of course. She picks the Kantosian spread, because if she doesn't know which knife to use, she can at the very least eat with chopsticks in a dignified fashion. The Chairman orders the roast magikarp stuffed with chestnuts, and asks the waiter to bring some alcohol that will go with each of their meals. Oleana does not order, and Gloria wonders what to make of it. Does her work entail her watching the Chairman eat his dinner while she grows hungry? Is this some kind of torture diet, which explains how tiny the woman is? Gloria feels her metaphorical hackles rise as Rose shifts his attention towards her and feels the reassuring weight of Tempo's and Orion's pokeball. 

“Why so much interest in a simple gym challenger, Chairman?” Gloria asks once they are alone.

Oleana continues to stand placidly by the Chairman's side, but Gloria notes how the woman tenses ever so slightly. The Chairman himself takes a sip of water. Slow, purposeful movements. 

She recognises power plays like this. She can wait.

"You're a curious one, Miss Blair," he says very formally. "Not many trainers receive sponsorships from the very beginning of their journeys, and yet, you refuse to make use of the resources that are readily at your disposal. Is it pride?" 

"Perhaps I don't want to take any charity from you," Gloria says lightly. 

"Charity?" The Chairman raises an eyebrow. "What makes you think this is charity? You're a trainer with a stellar record, and with good field experience. Any fool can guess that you'll easily be in the finals. Perhaps, like any good businessman will think, I recognise that you will be a good partner to make money with." 

"And yet you've not asked me to wear a cloak or jacket with sponsorship logos during my matches. And I've not yet signed any kind of contract in exchange for your money. For that matter, why are we having this conversation at all, and why aren't I dealing with your secretary instead?"  

He leans back and crosses his legs, looking like a walrein at ease. She remembers how quickly they can move, once they're in the water. 

The waiter comes in with their alcohol, pours a white wine out in front of Rose, and sake in front of Gloria. She recognises the brand - the one that the Birches only broke out for special occasions. Another waiter with a steaming tray, placing the magikarp in front of Rose, sashimi in front of Gloria. The octillery tentacle is still squirming. 

"So why do you think I've taken a special interest in you, Trainer Victoria?" His tone is very mild, but she can't help but feel that he's sneering at her. 

To buy me off. To keep quiet. "You're a workaholic, for one. And a micromanager." 

He chuckles. "It would be difficult to make my company the success it is, if it wasn't for that." 

"So the sponsorship isn't about assuaging your own guilt?" She dips the tentacle into the soy sauce and sticks it into her mouth. 

Rose just laughs. "What guilt? For a tragedy that occurred years ago, which no one remembers?" 

"Or for covering up what had actually happened." 

The magikarp Rose is digging his knife into stares at her with blank eyes. Given that this is a seafood restaurant, the fresh water pokemon is an odd choice, and one that she can't help but think he'd picked to unnerve her.

Tough luck. Yes, she's owned a magikarp for years but she's perfectly comfortable eating them as well. Trainers can't be picky eaters if they wanted to survive the great outdoors, of course. She takes another piece of sashimi, which she thinks is basculin. 

"What happened to your brother was an oversight. There is no evil conspiracy. Yes, I had the press gloss over the exact circumstances of the incident. Yes, the league paid a sum to your parents, and they chose to move out of Galar with that money. I can assure you, that was their own decision, and there never was any pressure for them to move away." 

"Why gloss it over at all?" 

Rose pauses at cutting away at his fish and wipes his mouth with a napkin. She can't help but follow the fussy movements. "Miss Blair, you know Leon. You know it wasn't malice. We couldn't let him have his reputation destroyed by a silly oversight." 

Everything the Chairman says is reasonable. Makes complete logical sense. 

Gloria isn't so naive about the world that she doesn't understand the importance of reputation, of media control, of narratives and stories. She understands completely why they couldn't have Leon have his reputation tarnished - the Champion is half spokesperson half national hero. He isn't supposed to be blinded by biases, even ones about his family. 

Victor and Hop were just collateral. 

She understands completely. 

But the thing is. She is a spiteful person. And she really really doesn't like that she's had to spend years being lied to.

There is also the problem of Raihan's story, that Leon had come back shaking, that he had been the one to call off the search party. If it had been a tragic accident, surely they would have just continued the search. 

Also what had Hop been doing at the Watchtower Ruins? All young trainers had known to stay away from the place, at least until they had stronger pokemon with them. 

She's grasping at straws. She knows this. Everything the Chairman is saying is completely reasonable. Then why did Gloria feel as though everything he was saying was a lie? 

"Maybe I just want to make it to the top," she says. "Maybe I just want to be the one to take Leon down, and I don't want anyone to say my victory had been handed to me." Keep it neutral. Keep it true. 

The Chairman sighs. "An entirely understandable sentiment. And I have no doubt that you will be in the Finals this year, young lady, you're clearly a talented trainer. Perhaps you'll be the one to unseat Leon as well." 

The compliments slide off her like water off a copperajah's back. She still can't shake off the feeling that he's lying - about something, everything. 

But why? Easier to arrange for an accident in the Wild Area to get rid of her. Why bother with this dinner, why bother sponsoring her to begin with? 

"You want Leon to be unseated," she guesses. It's a stab through the dark, but it's as good as any. "You want a new Champion." 

"Sixteen years is a long enough time for one person to play at being Champion, don't you think?" Rose says smoothly. "Leon certainly needs a break soon. And you've already captured the hearts of the people in Galar so well.

She understands his offer. It's what she wants. To be Champion, and all the power that comes with it. 

"I'm nowhere as pliable as Leon," she says, sipping her wine. It's not a yes. It's not a no either. 

"Perhaps I am counting on that," he says. "I'm not a young man anymore, and I don't have children. I'll need to think of someone to continue company." 

This is so far fetched she cannot even pretend to believe it. "You're looking for a successor." She won't even say the next part aloud. 

He doesn't even blink. "Yes. Once I thought Leon would be one, and he's very good at what he does, I'll give him that. But he doesn't understand how to run a business. He doesn't know how to think of the future of Galar, beyond battling."  

"And you think I do?" 

She suddenly thinks of how Raihan had told her about the Turffield gym was bugged and thinks about her crying fit at the trainer hotel. Had it been bugged as well? Or is she just overly paranoid? 

Rose inclines his head. "You show promise." 

"I'm just here to finish the Gym Challenge," she hears herself saying.

Rose inclines his head. "Of course. And now, I must get going. Feel free to order yourself dessert." 

Gloria is left alone at the table to think about the talk. She orders the sea salt caramel ice cream. It is delicious. 

 

She checks her phone as she walks out of the restaurant. Of course, there are messages from Raihan and Hop. 

5min to 1hr princess read the last message. Which he'd sent three minutes ago. 

I'm alive, she types, and sends the same one to Hop.

Raihan calls her. Of course. 

"Hi," he says, sounding slightly out of breath. She hears his flygon making a thrilling sound behind and wonders if she caught him seconds before he was going to take off. 

"Flying on your pokemon between cities is illegal, you know." Ostensibly for public safety and not crashing into the corviknight cabs. But really so that Macro Cosmos keeps a monopoly on the region's public transport.  

He snorts. "Did you really think I was going to haul my ass down there on one of those slow-as-hell cabs? Or, for that matter, get caught?" 

She's touched, but she's not going to tell him that. 

"What an edgy rebel you are." 

He waves that aside. "I feel like you're avoiding the subject because you're nervous. What happened?" 

She wonders when they got from her throwing a glass at him to him knowing her so well. 

"It's not something I want to get into on the phone. And I'm also still processing it myself." 

"I understand," he says. "I can still fly down, if you want." 

She's so tempted to say yes. She knows she shouldn't. She still doesn't understand what this thing is between them both except that she likes being treated like she's worth something to someone and she wants more of it. 

"I'll be in Motostoke tomorrow. It'll be a quicker ride for you, if you're free." 

"It'll take another few weeks before the first few trainers make it to Hammerlocke. Tomorrow night is good. I know a great cafe." 

Her stomach flips at the reminder that he's a gym leader. That this is all a really bad idea. 

"I'll see you, then," she says instead. 

 

Chapter Text

The initial plan was to camp outside of Route 5, head down to Motostoke via Galar Mine 2 in the morning with Sonia and Hop. 

She knows she's far too pumped with adrenaline - from Rose, from her conversation with Raihan - to even think about sleep now so she heads over to the mines after telling Hop that she's heading to Motostoke first. Then she lets her pokemon loose and breaks into a run. 

It is possibly not the best of ideas to go through the second Galar Mine at night, though she reasons that since they're dark all the time there's no real difference between going there in the day and night. 

Despite their names, Galar Mine 2 is the older mine, dug out by the old settlers in the region before Galar Mine 1 was even discovered, back when coal was a more important commodity than jewels. Jewels did nothing to keep one alive during the harsh winters after all. It is still kept open now, but without the fancy bells and whistles that the modern mine has, just simple lights marking out the safe paths, ropes , and functions more as a training ground for gym challengers between the water and fire gyms, the Motostoke gym well known to be the first real challenge and stumbling block for most trainers. 

She snorts. After the debacle with Nessa, she wouldn't be surprised if Rose gave some instruction to Kabu to send out his Championship team against her, for which she would have no counter. His Championship centiskorch is said to be as aggressive as a primeape on steroids and burn as badly as a houndoom. 

Which brings her back to Rose. Why? She knows his reputation as a control freak but it seemed really overboard for him to interfere so directly with a single trainer. He can't actually be serious about the part on looking for an heir. And even if that were true, why go through this rigmarole - the fancy dinner, the veiled threats - instead of just asking her? 

And also - in all the chaos she'd forgotten about Kabu, and his friend. Maxie. That debacle with Team Aqua and Magma had occurred a good five years before she had moved into Hoenn, but she'd heard enough stories - first the greatly embellished ones from her classmates in her new Hoenn school, then from Flannery, after the gym leader took an interest in her, then from Sapphire's and Ruby's own mouths. And - taurus shit, she's forgotten to check in with Sapphire and her parents again. 

She knows she's an awful person, but she's been especially antsy and forgetful since arriving in Galar - wanting to go head on with the head of an evil conglomerate will do that, Gloria - and she needs to pull herself together. Excuses are unacceptable. 

Only, wandering into a cave teeming with feral pokemon in the middle of the night is definitely not behaviour a put together person would be doing. She promises herself she will stop being a mess the next day. She will. 

It's good training for her pokemon anyway. 

Tempo takes down the wandering shellos and chewtles with ease. Orion, still grumpy from his earlier defeat, begins picking a fight with an especially looking antsy scraggy, until it flees, then walks up to another one to start again. They dodge and attack while she gives commands from a distance.  

She feels better almost immediately. Pokemon battles will do that. Observe, counter, and dominance. That is all it is. If only the world can be so simple. 

She holds up the pokeball that contains Seriyu. The metal is worn and scratched from all her years of carrying it around. “This would be easier if you’d just evolve,” she grumbles. She’s been saying this for years, but she’s self-aware enough to hear the edge in her own voice. In Hoenn, she’d kept Seriyu as pet and used a starmie when she had needed a water counter for Flannery’s gym, though the starmie had never stayed part of her team after that. It just feels wrong to bench him right now. He should do it for Victor, she thinks sourly. If no one else. 

“You’re out late.” 

The voice startles her from her thoughts, and of course, it’s Bede, somehow still managing to look snobbish even when covered in dirt. She tugs at her jacket, suddenly all too embarrassed about the amount of skin she is showing.

“So are you.”

“I’m on important business for the Chairman,” he says, and yes, he is actually holding his nose high in the air as though to avoid smelling her, it turns out it isn’t just a saying. “Chairman Rose of Macro Cosmos, of course.”

“Fuck the Chairman,” she can’t help but mutter. 

Bede sniffs. “Of course, you wouldn’t understand the gravity of what I’m doing.”

“All I know is that you’re the one covered in dirt, and I really don’t care why,” Gloria snaps. Her skin crawls then, and as expected, his fucking hattrem waddles out, head cocked to the side. 

“Another battle then,” Bede says, and it sounds far like a statement, like he knows she’s going to say yes, instead of a request. 

“You just want to lose, don’t you?” she asks. Of course, it’s not like she can say no to a battle. 

“I make it a point to crush my opponents as early as I can,” he replies. 

She glances at Tempo and Orion, and they’re almost buzzing with adrenaline. She guesses it has something to do with the ridiculous battle against Nessa’s drednaw earlier - which she logically knows was only a few hours ago, but feels almost like a distant memory now. “Let’s make this a double battle then.”

Bede tosses a pokeball, and she gasps when the ponyta forms, tossing its soft multicoloured mane. She’s never seen a Galarian one in the flesh before and yes, they’re just as breathtaking as she’d always thought they would be. He smirks when he sees her expression. 

“Careful,” he says. “He’s strong too.” 

"We'll see about that." 

It's a weird thing, this universal trainer code where trainers can sling insults at each other without anyone really quite meaning it or getting offended. Bede though - there’s something about his disdain that really gets her metaphorical hackles raised. It’s as though he’s not quite following the code, but a script that he had picked up secondhand. 

It doesn’t matter. She’ll crush him all the same, even if she doesn’t feel the need to lord out the threat the way he does. 

"Tempo, go!" 

The thawckey raises its sticks and begins seeding the ground, small vines sinking themselves into the dirt, only to lash out of the surface, whipping towards the two pokemon. 

The hattrem slings a psybeam at Tempo in response. “Orion, shield!” 

The corvisquire is already in front of the thawckey before she finishes the command. She's pleased to see this, and the fact that Orion shakes off the psybeam like it was a splash of water. Not long before it evolves.  

The ponyta whips its mane, but it is already tangled with long loops of rapidly growing vines. 

“Orion, screech.” 

The hattrem falls back shaking. “Disarming voice!” Bede calls, and it perks back up again, the sound leaving its mouth making both her pokemon shudder. Still, the vines do not loose their hold on the pokemon. 

“Vine whip.” 

It’s really more like a vine wrap at this point, she thinks, as the vines tighten around the ponyta. He gasps, whinnies. 

“Orion, dark pulse.” 

It’s the first time she’s used the move in a proper battle, and she’s relieved that the ponyta collapses immediately after making contact. They’re going to have to work on refining the move - its pulsations are still erratic and uneven but it’ll do for now. 

Bede clicks his tongue, and she grins mentally. It’s the first sign of distress she’s seen him give. 

“Psybeam!” he calls again, but Orion already knows to block it. She can see the slight traces of fatigue in his movements and knows he can only do it one more time. 

“Tempo, leech it,” she calls. And yes - the leech seeds should still have just enough poison in them to work in this battle. The hattrem shudders as the seedlings dig into its flesh. 

“Come on!” Bede barks. “Brutal swing!” 

The hattrem’s hair reaches out and grabs hold of Orion, pulling him down from the air to crash down. 

“Tempo, razor leaf!” 

The hattrem does not stop its pummelling. Orion squawks and goes limp - fuck not twice in one night, she can only imagine how vicious he’s going to be in his next battle. 

“Knock off!” she calls. Finally, it lets go of the corvisquire, then shudders and falls as the toxic leech seeds finally do their work. Both trainers are at their pokemon sides immediately. 

“You went after ponyta first,” Bede says, almost accusatory. He’s already got an antidote out and slips it down the hattrem’s throat - she hates to admit it, but she’s impressed, she doesn’t think her technique against Nessa has made the news yet, but he’d already figured out the technique just by watching it. 

She shrugs and focuses on spraying potions on Orion’s wounds. Hattrems are known to be hard hitters, but are also slightly tankier than the average psychic type. Poison just felt like a natural strategy for this battle. 

“I figured it would have pastel veil as its ability.” 

"You would be a pretty good psychic type trainer," Bede says. "You do know your pokemon well." 

She supposes he thinks its a compliment, but he still sounds like he's sneering. 

"All good trainers know their pokemon well."

"Yes, but - " He pets his hattrem as he sprays it with a potion. It coos into his arms like it isn't a terrifying beast. "Psychic types need a special affinity." 

Affinities. She thinks she knows what he’s talking about. The silent connection that they had with each other transferred effortlessly to the pokemon around them. She and Victor never had trouble communicating with pokemon, whether the budews that lived in their garden or the wooloos they helped to herd. She always wonders if that connection is gone now, that sixth sense of looking out into the world has been completely erased. The only other twins she knows are Tate and Lisa, and their bond is especially uncanny - psychic trainers to boot - so she's never had anyone to ask. 

"I had a twin.” The words are out before she realises that she’s said it, and she regrets it immediately. Bede’s eyes soften ever so slightly, and she decides that she prefers it when he was being an arrogant prat. She turns back to Orion, suddenly unable to look at him. The corviquire’s getting back up to his feet now, and nipping her fingers harder than he usually would. 

"Where are they now?” he asks. 

“Gone.” She hopes she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to continue. It's not like a limb missing because that would suggest Victor was only an extension of her. He was his own person, who saw and felt the world differently and that had always been something they'd shared so it was like seeing everything twice and they had always known how lucky they were to have that. And the one time I left him alone and he - 

Stop. It doesn’t do any good now to think about these things. Especially not in front of a stranger, she reminds herself. She’s still got her back to Bede but he’s a psychic trainer, and no doubt can feel all her turmoil rolling off her in waves. 

Gloria!” The call comes from the entrance of the cave, and she hears a bicycle riding through the dirt. And it’s Hop racing into view with a bike - her bike, she realises, which she left behind at the gym because she’d been too flustered first by Nessa, and then Rose’s surprise visit. Hop brakes hard in front of them and gets off the bike, then points at something - she turns to see what it is and oh, it’s at Bede.

“You!” 

Bede has his nose wrinkled, all his previous softness gone. 

“I thought you would have had better taste than to hang around with trash like that,” he tells Gloria, and storms off before her brain can even form a what the hell? 

Because really. What?

“Okay Hopscotch, what on earth did you do to piss that boy off?” She can’t imagine Hope - definitely a lot sweeter and less abrasive than herself - inciting a reaction like that from anyone. Even if Bede is a bizarre brat. 

Nothing I swear! He’s been like that since we met at the Opening Ceremony.” He scrunches up his face. “Unless he’s pissed that I thought he was a girl.”

“Yeah, I can see how you can make that mistake,” Gloria says, wincing. Bede might perhaps take offence at that but this feels like a far more personal grudge. “But what are you doing here?” 

“Looking for you, obviously.” 

“I thought we were meeting in Motostoke tomorrow?”

“Gloria.” His eye is twitching the way it does when he wants to roll them, but can’t. “Did you really think I was going to let you run into the Galar Mines by yourself in the middle of the night?” 

Yes, she wants to say, but even she knows that would sound ungracious. She frowns. “What about Sonia?” 

Hop waves a hand. “She’s staying with Nessa for the night. Turns out, they’re really good friends.” 

“Oh.” Gloria tries to see that. “Huh. Okay.” 

“Yeah, I’m not exactly sure exactly what their relationship is right now but.” He shrugs. “Sonia seems happy. I think she was stuck in Wedgehurst by herself for too long.” 

“That’s good,” Gloria says, and means it. Sonia and Nessa huh. 

And of course, that just makes her think about Raihan again. And the fact that they’ll be meeting the next day. Her grip on Orion’s feathers wing tightens, and the corvisquire squawks and nips at her fingers. 

“Sorry, Orion.” She gets up, still somewhat unsteady. “Okay, let’s go.” 

“You okay?” Hop asks. He folds up the bike and hands it to her, then falls in step with her as she starts moving. 

“Yeah. Fine.”

“Alright, so why did you run off on us like that?” 

Which only makes her think about her dinner with Rose. 

“Nothing, I just needed time to train.”  

“Are you kidding? You demolished Nessa’s championship drednaw mate! Your battle was insane! She must’ve realised you were special, since she brought it out and everything, I only got the drednaw she uses for gym challenges.” 

Nope, just on good ol’ Chairman Rose’s orders. “I’m just not feeling up to the Fire gym, you know? My team’s not exactly up to dealing with fire pokemon.” Orion turns to her and snaps his beak at her and she laughs. “Not that I’m doubting them. But type advantage and all.” Tempo grunts in understanding, and Orion seems to huff, at least slightly mollified. 

“Mmm, I get what you mean. And Kabu usually weeds out a good half of the gym challengers too.”

“Yeah.”

“Still! You’ll be great Gloria. Don’t doubt yourself!” 

I don’t, but I’m really afraid what Kabu’s going to throw at me before my team is ready is too much of a downer, so she tries to be a supportive friend instead. “Thanks Hop! Have you figured out your strategy with him yet?” 

“No, but I think I have the gym challenge figured out, at least!” 

They talk strategy as they keep walking through the mine and Gloria does her best to not think of everything that had happened earlier in the night. If Hop notices how distracted she is, he doesn’t say anything. He was truly a better friend than she deserved, she thought. 

The peace doesn’t last, of course. 

They’re almost to the end, the adrenaline finally wearing off and the whole weight of the day sinking onto Gloria’s head, shoulders, toes -it doesn’t matter she’s exhausted and looking forward to spending her winnings from Nessa’s gym on a proper bed in Motostoke - when they run into Team Yell. The group of trainers slink out from one of the blocked off paths, covered in dirt and muttering to themselves. They jump as they see Hop and her approach. 

“Oi, that area’s off-limits,” Hop yells. 

“None of ya business.” Gloria had not wanted to see the ripped shirt and wobbling beer gut combination again. The trainer shouts as he recognises her. “It’s th’ bitch from before!”

Hop glances at her, and she knows he’s holding back a laugh. “And what did you do to piss this lot off?” 

She shrugs. “Trounced them in a battle.” 

“Yeh? Well, you’re not going t' beat us so easily this time!” 

Gloria nudges Hop. “Shall we?” 

She sees him hesitate before comprehending what she means, and for a split second, she wonders if she’s overstepped and he’s just going to tell her to sod off. But then he grins, like nothing could make him happier. 

“Let’s go.” 

They agree on the format - doubles, each trainer being allowed two pokemon. The Team Yell trainers choose a thievul and linoone. 

It’s not even close. She sends out Liberty - much to Orion’s disgruntlement but Orion's been battling plenty already - and Hop chooses Shearlock, of course, and even though the two pokemon last met each other in battle, they fall into sync easily, just like she and Hop. Hop’s takes defence immediately. 

“Shearlock, growl!” 

“Liberty, bug buzz!” 

The thievul recovers quickly enough to swipe at Liberty, but Shearlock’s earlier growl has done its job - the butterfree barely takes damage from the attack. 

“Liberty use supersonic!”

“Shearlock, headbutt the linoone!” 

Gloria can’t help but think of all the virtual battles they used to play - against each other most of the time, but enough so that they generally know each other’s strategies and plans without even having to speak to each other. Is this what having a rival means? 

When the battle is done, she gives Hop a hug, and it’s not awkward at all. “That was fun.” 

“Yeah,” he says, beaming, and her heart swells in her chest. 

The Team Yell trainers shout, and then throw down the prize money like they did previously, then scamper off towards the exit. Liberty chitters as she tosses her a berry, and then another one at Shearlock. At her side, Tempo and Orion nudge her slightly, and she can only laugh and toss the treats at them too. 

If only the rest of the world could really be as simple as pokemon battling. 

“I think we’re almost at the end,” Hop tells her. They recall their pokemon back to their balls - except Tempo, who swings up to rest on her back. She manages to stay upright, but it’s a near thing.  

“Careful there,” she tells him. “You’re not going to be able to do it for much longer.” 

He chatters, but remains slung on her back, his arms wrapped around her neck. She knows an “Exactly” when she hears it, and lets him stay.

And yes, they’re almost to the end, when they spot the figure in a familiar red uniform. 

“Is that Kabu?” Hop asks, and it’s been years, but he still hasn’t quite learnt what an indoor voice is, and his voice echoes around the caves.

The figure perks up and strolls - no, jogs, yes it’s Kabu, alright - over to them. “Ah. The girl from Hoenn - and you, you’re the Champion’s brother.” She feels Hop flinch next to her. “It's not wise for you to be out so late, children.”

Gloria shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep. What are you doing here then, Kabu dono?”

He frowns and genuinely looks like he's about to scold her, like an irate father. 

"So what are you doing here, Mr Kabu?" Hop asks. 

“I was training,” he said. “I’ll have to be ready when I face all you gym challengers, so we can have a perfect match.” 

Perfect match? What on earth does that even mean? He’s got a gentle smile on his face now, and she wonders what secret instructions Rose has given him. And because she's tired and still pissed at the world, she decides now is a good time to poke the sleeping dragonite. 

“Does the world know about your friend, Kabu dono?” 

The smile does not leave his face, but he goes very still. She thinks of a seviper, just before it strikes. “You should be careful where you put your nose, o-jou chan,” he says. She bristles slightly at the diminutive. “You might find it cut off.”

The threat was old when Rose made it, she thinks, and says so aloud.

The entire conversation is happening in Imperial, so of course, Hop has no idea what’s going on. 

“Well then,” Kabu says. She doesn’t miss how tightly he grips the towel around his neck. “I’ll see you both soon. I expect a proper challenge from you.” 

Hop at least waits a few minutes after Kabu’s figure disappears from sight before he starts with the questions.

“What was that about?” 

“Nothing. Just practicing my Imperial.” It's not a terrible lie, as far as bad lies go. Both she and Kabu had maintained pleasant tones throughout, entirely professional expressions. 

“Uh huh.” He doesn’t sound convinced at all. "Gloria, you know you can tell me anything - “

She knows the end of the spiel. And all of a sudden, it all feels too much. 

She doesn't want it. Hop's kindness. His protectiveness. She doesn't deserve any of it. 

She still remembers his face in Postwick, when she’d cut off the blinders and shown him how much his life is a lie. She doesn’t know if she can do it again. She remembers his face, when he told her - rightly - that she had been wrong. 

"I'm fine," she say, and tries to muster a smile. "I need to head off on my own, okay?" 

"Gloria - " 

"I'll text you. Thanks for my bike.” 

Tempo’s grip seems to tighten around her neck as she runs away. 

 

Chapter Text

When Gloria enters Motostoke, she takes the railway to the south of the city, and heads right back into the Wild Area. It’s almost dawn at this point, 

She needs to sleep. She needs to stop thinking about everything that has happened - with Nessa, with Rose, with Kabu - and she needs to stop being an awful friend to Hop

He’d been nothing but kind, and patient, and he must have been tired too, but decided to look for her, had stayed with her after handing her her bike. And she’d just taken off without an explanation. 

I'm sorry, she apologises to an imaginary Hop. As though it changes anything. 

She can't even explain herself - only that she's felt choked, her insides rolling over in knots, her skin constantly feeling like a thousand blipbugs marching their way across it ever since she stepped foot in Galar. It could be the memories, the grief that won't stop plaguing over her as she makes her journey. She had mourned her brother for years and thought she was done with that. How much of his presence is tied to Galar? 

But there is also something else, something wrong and she can't drag Hop into this. 

Then there's also the fact that she's somehow managed to piss off Nessa, Rose, and Kabu within a day. It's a habit she's going to have to watch. 

She picks a spot near Lake Axewell and sets up her tent. From the distance, she can see the old watchtower ruins, and thinks of Hop, fourteen and wandering amongst the old stones. 

She will deal with that, she thinks. Later. This land has too many ghosts. 

 

Sonia wakes up from a dream she cannot remember. She lies in bed, the echoes of an old Imperial saying still in her head. Something to do with some kind of snack before flowers. Basically substance over form. She’ll have to ask Gloria.

The Galarian equivalent: That all wooloo should learn to headbutt, which Sonia appreciates. She has never understood the clear categories some people have when, differentiating some pokemon purely for show, and those suited for battle. Milotics are plenty powerful, after all. 

She gives up trying to remember the idiom and finally gets up, padding into the kitchen to brew coffee for herself and Nessa. She’s pouring the coffee out and adding milk the way Nessa likes it when the gym leader appears, yawning and wiping the sleep crust from her eyes. 

“Thank Mew,” Nessa says blearily, and reaches for the proffered cup.

“When do you have to get going to the gym?” Sonia asks. Also code for When will I have to leave? She feels so much like she’s intruding, she hasn’t seen Nessa in literal years and yet they’d already had dinner twice, and she’s stayed over for the night. It’d all been nice but she can't help but tiptoe around lines, imagined or not. 

Nessa drinks the coffee without answering, looking slightly more alert. “The gym’s closed for the weekend,” she finally says when the coffee is gone. Sonia dutifully tops up the cup and Nessa takes another sip before Sonia can add milk, and Sonia wonders at what point Nessa started taking her coffee black. “It’ll reopen on Monday, but the worst of the Championship season is over for me at this point. Until the finals anyway.” 

“How many more gym challengers are you going to have to face?” she asks. 

“At this point, I’ve faced the entire roster of them.” Nessa fiddles with her hair, her face scrunched in memory. “The trainer last night - Gloria? Your friend? She was the last one. I’ll probably have some stragglers coming back for a rematch in the next few weeks.” She grimaces and downs the entire cup of coffee, as though shuddering at the thought. Then she looks up and smiles at Sonia. “Do you want to go get breakfast somewhere? There’s a cafe by the beachside that’s opened and I’ve never had the time to check out.” 

“I was supposed to meet Hop at Motostoke,” Sonia says, still hesitant. “And of course, I don’t want to be a bother.” 

Nessa rolls her eyes.“Sonia. I haven’t seen you in years. I've missed you.” Nessa drops her gaze and fiddles with her hair. “And also, don’t take this as me trying to just be nice to you to make things up to you, but I’ve been a naff friend.” 

“Nessa.” Sonia laughs, even though something inside her seems to seize up at Nessa's words. “Don't be ridiculous. I get it, you’ve been busy with your modelling career and being gym leader, and I’ve just been a washout grad student -“ 

“It’s not an excuse,” Nessa says firmly. “I’ve been awful, and I really should have caught up with you earlier like when your - “ Sonia does not miss the way Nessa stops herself. “Anyway. Let’s go get some breakfast.” 

She feels tears prick her eyes, and to her embarrassment, starts to sniff. 

“Oh. Oh love." Nessa’s over at her side in a moment, and has her arms around her. 

“I’m sorry.” She wipes her eyes. “I’ve been… I’ve been a lot lately.” 

Nessa hugs her tighter. “And that’s completely understandable.” 

Sonia sniffs. “I really don’t know when it started,” she whispers. “I just don’t feel like myself anymore. I’ve had to have Gloria come in and clean my apartment for me, and Hop’s been taking me around when he should really be just concentrating on his own challenge  - Nessa, I used to look after them when they were children! Look at me now.”

“That’s what friends do,” Nessa says, voice firm and insistent. “Life is hard enough, okay? And you’ve been through so much. Just let us carry you for a while. Until you’re strong enough to go on your own.” 

And that’s too close to her very worst nightmare - that she’s never going to be strong enough, that she’ll never be able to carry on on her own. Who was Sonia Magnolia anyway, even before her grandmother’s death? 

She cries as Nessa holds her. She still can’t bear to say her fears aloud.  

 

It’s noon when Gloria finally wakes, the sun beating down and breaking her into a sweat the second she steps out of her tent. She shovels down some trail mix with water, opens up some canned food for Orion, Tempo, and Liberty, and starts immediately for the watchtower ruins. She doesn’t have much time. 

She’s not arrogant enough to think that she’s ready to enter the watchtower at night. She wouldn’t anyway - not unless she had a Championship ready team with at least one dark type. There are ghost types, and there are ghosts of actual pokemon. She’s heard stories of Lavender Town in Kanto and the tower there, and the time the pokemon spirits were disturbed from their rest. The watchtower ruins occupy a similar place in Galar. She’d grown up telling all sorts of stories about it during sleepovers, adding embellishments on headless ghosts and blood that won’t come off the stones while Victor shuddered under the blankets. Most of the stories are probably untrue, or at least, wildly exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean the place isn’t actually haunted. 

The saying is that the watchtower was standing from the Darkest Day. That she doubts - anyone can see that there are different kinds of stones, aged and weathered varyingly in the area. Perhaps the oldest parts of it did stand then - but the whole compound has been built and rebuilt over the years, new sections added over time. She wonders what it had been built to watch

There are skowvets and bounsweets and pidoves clambering around the ruins. She’s right about Orion’s foul mood, who seems to take any cooing the pidove make personally. Liberty begins landing on some of the wild flowers creeping in the area, and Tempo’s already began raiding the berry trees. 

She touches the weathered stone, and feels a chill. “Get ready,” she shouts, and at once her team is at her side. To her relief, it is a drifloon, looking more curious than anything. 

“Hello,” she says, making sure to keep her hands far away from its own. “I’m a little too old for you, I’m afraid.” It squeaks, then drifts over to Tempo, who eyes it warily. “He’s not a child either,” she calls. The drifloon makes another squeak then phases back into the walls. "In we go.”

She’s careful to make as little noise as possible when stepping through the ruins. She can make out the shadows of woobats and noibats overhead, tucked in crevices or hanging on any surface they can put their claws on. 

She touches the walls again. What in Giranta’s name had Victor and Hop been doing here? 

She thinks she’s imagining it at first, when she feels a slight tremor in the stones. Then it happens again. 

She’s got her pokeballs in one pocket, ready to call back her team at a notice. She touches the other pocket, which holds an escape rope. “Any sign of trouble,” she half-whispers. “You come back to me, got it?” Her team nod in assent, and they keep going. 

They’re headed to an older section, she realises. The stones here are smoother, more worn. The ground crunches lightly under her feet, and when she checks, she realises she can see footprints in the dirt.

Doesn’t mean anything, she tells herself. Trainers are here all the time. She finds herself following them anyway. 

Then the footsteps stop. There’s a rumble again, this one shaking the ground under her feet.

What?

Orion caws, and as she turns, she feels the slight, telltale headache she always gets with a psychic pokemon at work. 

“Flush it out,” she instructs. Orion screeches towards a corner of the ruin - it’s empty, she realises belatedly, nothing hanging in the ceiling, and without the tell-tale chill of a ghost type around. She should have seen it sooner.

Liberty is the one to send a blast of confusion to the corner of the room. The gothorita flickers into view, barely affected by the attack. Its raises its hands and starts to glow. 

“Liberty, bug buzz! Tempo, use knock off, Orion dark pulse!” 

She hopes that it isn’t too close to evolution but it collapses from the force of the combined attacks. As it does, the illusion collapses around them, and a hole opens up in the centre of the room. 

She can hear the telltale roar of a dynamax den, her skin crawling.

No, no, no.

Liberty makes a mental noise of distress and it almost splits her head. 

There’s another rumble. She can hear the roar of a pokemon below. 

To her surprise, Orion gently wraps his wing around Liberty, and makes a soft caw. Tempo taps a gentle rhythm with his sticks - the sound meant to soothe. A few long minutes pass, and Liberty calms down. 

“You can stay here,” Gloria tells the butterfree. “We all understand. But I need to get down there.” 

The butterfree seems to huff a breath, then nods, and gets up to hover next to the entrance of the den.

Gloria smiles. “Right, the plan - Tempo and Liberty, the both of you will deal with the pokemon down there. We’ll have Seriyu for backup. Orion, your job is to find the Wishing Star down there, whatever the source of the dynamax is, and destroy it. Then we’ll just have a regular pokemon to deal with. If it gets too much, I’ll whistle. Get to me, and we’ll use the escape rope.” 

They all nod, and she dives in. 

 

Her first mistake was assuming that the only thing they would find down there was a pokemon.

The gothorita had a trainer, after all, and they’d just been following footsteps. Of course there were other trainers there.

The second - she thought that she was going to meet a ghost type pokemon, just a dynamaxed version of the pokemon they’d seen when wandering around the ruins. 

But what greets them isn’t a noibat, or a duskull - not even a gengar or a golurk. 

It’s a salazzle. 

I thought they were only in the Dusty Bowl, she thinks. She can’t think of any reason for there to be one here

It is so hard to think. She thought she had remembered that harsh oppressive air of the last dynamax den she’d been in, but she hadn’t even remembered a fraction of what it had been like. She can hear the salazzle as well, screaming in pain, the same as Milo’s eldegoss, and Nessa’s drednaw, and Liberty, when they had first met. All of them, lashing out in pain and fear. 

There are people here as well - three of them, each of them wearing white jackets and black pants. There aren’t any identifying logos on their clothes, but she’s willing to bet her entire wallet that they’re from Macro Cosmos. 

“It’s too strong!” one of them shouts. “We need to end this!” 

Another one spots her. “You! What are you doing here? It’s too dangerous!” 

The salazzle roars again, and then releases a mass of large purple gunk, heading towards her. Max Ooze, a part of her brain tells her. 

She screams - no, whistle, damnit, her hand reaching for the escape rope - but Orion is already in front of her and flapping his wings to divert the path of the poison. She sees the way it bubbles as it passes. 

She’s at a distinct type advantage - Tempo, Liberty, and Orion as well, weak to the salazzle’s fire attacks - if Orion is starting to pick up resistance to psychic moves it’s entirely possible that he would begin being affected by fire as well. Tempo is doubly weak to its poison. 

The salazzle shrieks again. 

“We can’t leave until we beat it!” the trainer closest to her yells. She briefly touches the escape rope in her pocket - and fuck, it’s not vibrating, the way it should. They have their pokemon out - a mawile, a stunfisk, and a meowth, the latter two Galarian, so entirely steel type. She wants to groan and shake into them a lesson on type coverage but there isn’t time. 

“Liberty, psybeam! Tempo, use leech seed!” 

She thanks all the deities that Tempo’s leech seeds are toxic resistant - she can only hope now that they will hold up to the salazzle’s poison. From the corner of her eye, she spots the meowth padding along with a large steel box, holding it open and letting the poisonous liquid ooze in. What? 

The salazzle roars as the psychic move makes contact. She needs to end this, quickly. 

One of the trainers directs the mawile to move up close for a sucker punch. The stunfisk opens its mouth and lets out a screeching sound - metal sound, she assumes. The salazzle is barely winded. 

“Orion, use screech!” 

Fire lick its way out of the corners of the salazzle’s wide mouth. She shouts “Move!” before her brain has quite caught up with what has happened. To her relief, Orion and Liberty are already swerving out of the attack’s way, and Tempo has already retreated. 

The salazzle’s flames pour over the mawile and the stunfisk.

“Fuck!” their trainers yell. Both pokemon collapse straight after. 

Gloria has revives in her bag, but the salazzle is already turning her attention to her pokemon and Seriyu's pokeball is closer.

The magikarp lands on the ground. 

“Are you fucking kidding me?” one of the trainers yells. 

“We’re going to die,” another one shouts. 

“Liberty, don’t stop with the psychic attacks! Seriyu, hydro pump.” 

She’s already reaching into her bag for the dynamax band - the one the League had loaned to her before Milo’s battle, returned to her hands despite her childish pique during the battle. She kept it anyway. She’s got her hand on a handful of revives, then realises her error. The unconscious pokemon are too far away. 

The combined psychic and hydropump at least seems to be doing something at least, and Tempo is still looking healthy, so she assumes that the leech seed is working.

Orion does yet another sweep around the room, caws, and then flies down next to her, shaking his head. There is no Wishing Star this time, she realises. She doesn’t know how the salazzle had dynamaxed - is it just a property of the den? 

It doesn’t matter. 

The salazzle lashes with its forked tongue, leaving flames trailing down its wake. Liberty is still too focused on her psychic onslaught to move and to her horror, is in the attack’s way.

Move!” she screams, even though a part of her knows it is much too late. The butterfree collapses right as the salazzle lets out another Max Flare, the conflagration engulfing the butterfree whole.  

Even before the flames stop, she knows that Liberty is dead. She’d felt her psychic scream, right up until the end. 

Above, Orion screeches - not an attack, but a shriek of pain. 

Tempo is howling as well, vines lashing out against the salazzle over and over. Orion takes off to just above the salazzle’s head, cawing and snapping its beak over and over. 

She knows that it's still not enough. 

Salazzles are fast, heavy-hitting pokemon, with low defence or health, used as quick sweepers at the start of battles. Dynamaxing it has only bolstered its power, strengthened its defences. 

She thinks of the dynamax band in her hand. She wonders if her pokemon will forgive her for using it. 

Tempo? A Max Growth would allow them all to heal and recover. Or Seriyu? A Max Geyser would dampen down the flames.

In the end though, it is Seriyu who saves them all. 

A white light fills the entire cavern. There is a roar, long and low, which leaves the floor shaking. Then a huge blue shape rises, towering over her. 

Gyrados. 

Seriyu lets loose a jet of water many times larger and stronger than its hydropump. The salazzle cries, and falls back. 

“Finish it off with bite!” Gloria calls. Seriyu unclenches its jaws and snaps onto the salazzle's flesh. 

She has a pokeball out, fumbles with placing it on the dynamax band. The ball grows in her hands and she aims and tosses it at the salazzle. 

A flash of red. The ball tumbles on the ground and shakes. 

Once. Twice.

There’s a click, and she lets out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.

And then her legs are already taking off, towards Liberty’s body.

The butterfree’s corpse is charred, falling apart under her fingers as she touches it.

“Oh no.” Tempo is next to her already, making a soft whining noise. Orion shrieks his grief overhead. 

She feels a soft pressure against her back, and realises it is Seriyu, red eyed and mouth agape. He jerks his body towards the Macro Cosmos trainers.

Yes. She can cry later. 

She uses Liberty’s pokeball to capture her corpse (her poor, blackened corpse) and stands to face the three trainers, slipping revives down their pokemon and spraying them with potions. The steel types are doing fine, she notes bitterly. Nothing a trip to a pokemon centre won't cure. 

“What in Giranta’s good name were you even doing here?” she demands. Shrieks almost, like she was possessed by a banette. 

"It’s none of your business, trainer,” one of them says curtly. She doesn’t miss the way the one clutching the metal box grips it tightly to his chest. 

“It’s common knowledge that a gas made from Salazzle poison is used in perfumes,” Gloria says coldly. “How much does its dynamaxed poison fetch in the market?” 

“Like we said,” the trainer growls. His meowth hisses, looking as though it would launch itself at Seriyu. “It’s none of your business.” 

“Sorry about your butterfree.” That comes from the the mawile’s owner. She can’t read the trainer’s expression, but she seems to be genuinely sympathetic. “But we came here to do this for a reason, and not one of the other easily accessed dynamax dens for a reason. You shouldn’t have been here.” 

The first trainer clicks his tongue, as though to remind her to be silent, and they all leave without another word. 

 

Her journey back to Motostoke is a haze. 

The sun’s already setting when she climbs out of the dynamax den - somehow, she’s spent hours in the Watchtower Ruins. She climbs on her bike and speeds away before the ghost pokemon emerge.

She heads straight to the nearest pokecentre to the southern entrance and hands her pokemon over silently. All except for Liberty’s pokeball, which she turns over and over again in her hands. 

A sob leaves her throat, but she chokes it back down. Not in public. Not now. 

When she checks her phone, she realises of course, she’s got dozens of missed messages. Again. She doesn’t have any excuse not replying them now as she waits, so she does - reassurances as to her parents and to Sapphire, a falsely cheery message letting them know that Seriyu has finally evolved, instead of describing her near-death experience in detail. 

There’s messages from Hop of course, asking her if she’s okay. She taps out an apology - the same one she started composing hours ago. I wasn’t feeling myself, she sends. I’m alright now. I’m really sorry I just ran off on you like that. She knows it isn’t enough. 

And Raihan. Of course. She’d completely forgotten about their meeting. The messages are from a half hour back, when he told her he was grabbing a taxi over to Motostoke. He landed about the same time she entered the city, she estimates, and feels bad for making him wait. 

Sorry, I just got back to Motostoke, she tells him. I’m really not feeling like being in public right now. 

gotcha he sends. theres a tea house i know. He sends her the address, and for all her childish running away from kindness and company earlier, she is so so grateful that she doesn’t have to be alone right now.

The nurse calls her name and hands her back her pokemon. 

She has to retrace her footsteps amongst the city's twisting alleys a couple of times to find the tea house. From the outside, it looks much like the other small bookstores and bakeries in the area - the kind where the family sleeps over the shop. There is no sign, only a white paper lantern hanging over the door. 

He’s waiting for her by the entrance, slouched in a discreet navy hoodie. He wraps her in a hug the second he sees her face, unmindful of the fact that she's probably covered in dirt. She'd cleaned off the best she could at the pokemon centre, took off the water gym uniform for a fresh change of clothes but her hair needs a wash, and she feels like there's dirt caked into the skin that can only be removed by an hour-long soak in a tub. 

She will not cry. She will not cry. 

“You look like someone dragged you through the Distortion world,” he says as he steps back to get a better look at her. 

The laugh that slips from her mouth is near hysterical. “Not far from that, I guess.” 

“Let's talk inside.” He nods to the kimono-clad woman at the front. If she’s surprised to see the dragon gym leader, she doesn’t show it, only bows, and silently gestures for them to kick off their shoes while other servers bring out straw slippers for their use. 

They’re led to a small room that overlooks a small garden and seated in front of a low table. She wonders if he brought her here because he thought it might remind her of Hoenn. 

He orders for them both, which she’s grateful for since her tongue feels like its swelled up twice its size in her mouth and she doesn’t think she can bring herself to speak. The hojicha they’re served is good, and she’s surprised how thirsty she is, and laps up the entire cup. 

“Thanks,” she says, voice still hoarse but at least she can speak again. 

“You okay with telling me what happened?” 

She starts with Nessa’s talk with her in the locker room, and the strange cryptic warnings the gym leader was giving her. Then the dinner with Rose - just a day ago but it already feels so distant. He frowns but doesn’t say anything when she talks about what he had offered. 

“I’m not making this up." She can't help her hands clenching into fists. The last twenty-four hours still feels like an impossibility, downright outlandish coming from her lips - even though she had been right there. 

"I believe you," he says. He reaches for her hands - and she's struck again by how his palms dwarf hers - and kneads them again until they relax and unclench under his attentions.

The paper door slides open, and one of the servers walks in. Gloria snatches her hands out of his and blushes until the girl leaves the room. 

"Don't worry," Raihan laughs. "They're discreet here." 

Her face is still warm and she can’t quite meet his eyes. "I'd really rather none of this gets onto social media. Or the press." 

He nods. "I understand. But really, I picked this place for the privacy. It's a family-owned establishment, completely unaffiliated with Macro Cosmos." He raps a wall close to him. She'd thought it was paper but it still makes a solid knock. "Completely soundproof. Good for business deals, secret trysts, that kind of thing." 

"Right." She tries to smile. "So is this a business deal, or a secret tryst?" 

"It's whatever you want it to be." She doesn't miss the way his mouth quirks upward, the flash of fang he gives her. On another day, any other day, she would melt. Just a little. 

I suppose I walked into that one. She can't help but smile at the absurdity of it all, though. At least there are some things that remain consistent. 

The server enters again, this time with trays laden with food - Imperial cuisine, all of it, in the Johto style. Tiny, exquisite dishes. Beautifully plated She doesn’t think she can eat any of it without throwing up. 

She continues talking instead and their food grows cold between them. Tells him about Maxie when in Motostoke - it was just a couple of weeks ago, she realises - and then running into Kabu at the mines earlier today. 

The words spill out faster now. Going to the watchtower. Finding the dynamax den hidden by the gothorita. Diving into a den. Raihan stays silent but the side of his left eye is twitching ever so slightly and she suspects he’s literally biting his tongue back so he doesn't interrupt. 

She tells him about the battle with the salazzle. The trainers, and how they’d taken the poison. Liberty’s death.

When she finishes, her chest is so tight she can barely breathe. 

Raihan’s face has the same expression Ruby gets whenever she and Sapphire run off into the wild for days, and come back with their clothes torn and mud-splattered. She has a very strong idea on what’s coming and braces herself. 

“Gloria. I mean this in the kindest possible way.” He sighs and covers his face with his hands. “But you are the most reckless, impulsive, idiotic trainer I’ve ever met. And I’ve met many in my career.” 

So far, on track with her predictions.

“Is this about the part about walking into a dynamax den by myself, or - "

“Yes. No. All of it. Arceus. If you were one of my trainers, I’d put you on cleaning duty for a month. And dragons need to be cleaned, frequently.” 

She winces. 

“And, my technologically challenged friend, you can check what pokemon is inside of a den with your Pokedex before jumping right in.” 

“Oh.” 

He groans. “You just skipped the instruction manual, did you?” 

“I’m doing alright, so far,” she protests, stung. 

“No,” Raihan snaps. “You’ve been lucky so far. Going up against a dynamaxed pokemon with the team you had, without any idea on the pokemon’s power levels or even the pokemon you were facing? Without knowing that escape ropes don’t work in the dens? What were you thinking?” 

She shifts. “I thought I was.” 

He shakes his head. “You’re smarter than this.” His disappointment hurts even worse than his anger, and dimly, she wonders when she cared so much about his approval. Then his expression softens.

“I am sorry about your butterfree though,” he says, very gently. 

She can’t bear to meet his eyes, so she focuses on the table instead. Finishes her cold tea, tasting none of it. 

He nods at their food. “You need to eat something.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“I’m not asking.” 

If she were less tired she would have bristled at his tone. Even though she knows he's right. 

Chewing is hard. Swallowing is hard. She is so, so tired. 

“You could have been a lot more subtle, speaking to Kabu,” he says. 

“I wasn’t aware I’d hired you to be my conscience.”

“Maybe you should, and you’ll stop getting yourself into these - “ He cuts himself, putting his head in his hands again. “Sorry. It’s just that this is all a lot. I thought you were going to talk about your battle with Nessa, and about Rose being an ass or something, I wasn’t expecting to hear that you almost died and - “ He stops again. 

“I don’t know what’s going on. I think Nessa’s being protective over Milo, but it’s still not like her to go after your corvisquire like that, especially if he’d already fainted. They’d cut that part out of the feed of your match. And Rose, and Kabu - Kabu’s the biggest stickler for rules that I know.” His headband’s already askew from the way he keeps tugging at it. He takes it off, if only to run his hands through his hair in frustration. 

“It’s not too late for you, you know.” Her voice feels like it’s coming from another person. “To walk away.” 

“That’s not going to make me feel any better, Gloria. I’m not going to stop caring about you even if I stopped talking to you.” 

“You can try.” 

“You have some serious abandonment issues.” 

“Unsurprising, really.” She tries to crack a smile, but it feels far too stiff on her lips. “Tell me about your day? What do sensible, intelligent people do instead of pissing people off and climbing into dynamax dens?” 

He pauses, and then launches into a story about one of his gym trainers and the new brood of jangmo-o that had just hatched. To her surprise, she actually listens to the story, and smiles as Raihan gestures to emphasise a point. It’s like a fog lifting in her brain.

It’s late when they finally leave the shop. Most of the other restaurants in the area have started to close up. 

“Do you want me to come with you?” he asks. 

She shakes her head.

“Okay.” He’s scratching the side of his neck, as though deliberating on something, then gives her another hug. "Call me, if you think you’re about to do something stupid. I’ll let you know if you are.” 

To her surprise, and probably to Raihan’s too, she presses a kiss to his cheek. She has to reach a long way to do it, but somehow, she manages.  “I will,” she promises. 

She takes the rail to the south entrance of the city, and heads back into the Wild Area. It’s early enough that the Macro Cosmos rangers are still hanging around the entrance of Motostoke. She asks to borrow a shovel.

She walks back to the watchtower ruins again, repels in one pocket and a pokedoll in another just in case. She thinks about how afraid she'd been to be here just a few hours ago in the day, and she can laugh. 

She steps amongst the grass to the side of the tower, where the trees and flowers are growing wild. Liberty had landed on those same flowers just a few hours before.

A haunter materialises before her, its tongue lolling. She plants her shovel in the soil and eyes it carefully. 

"I'm here for a friend," she says slowly. It must understand what she's trying to do, because it just cocks its floating head to the side, and lets her pass. She finds a spot underneath a tree. Unmindful of the ghost pokemon she can sense gathering around, she starts digging. 

She'd always been leery - alright, outright afraid, especially when she was younger - of the more esoteric pokemon types - the psychics, the darks, and of course, the ghosts. She had never examined the fear too closely, just knew that she was never comfortable around them. Victor, despite all his fears of breaking rules, was never so wary. 

But here she is, in a veritable graveyard, in the middle of the night.

In a way, ghost pokemon are much like psychic pokemon. They can sense negative emotions and cluster close, but do not actually reach for her. Right now, she imagines her grief rolling from her in waves, crashing over the surroundings again and again. Goosebumps begin to prickle over her skin as she senses more of them have gathered in the area, some as faint shadows, some completely invisible, but they don’t come any closer. 

Ghost pokemon seem like such a small thing now, next to live humans and their threats.

When she is done digging, her hands feel like more blisters than skin. She thumbs the dial of the pokeball with stiff fingers and Liberty's corpse coalesces in the grave. She lets Tempo, Orion and Seriyu out. They take a moment to reorient themselves, then see the charred body in the dirt. Orion's screech shatters the night silence, and Seriyu seems to curl his massive new body into himself. Tempo howls and drums a slow steady beat on the ground. 

Around them, the ghost pokemon watch their display in silence. 

She doesn’t know how long they stay like that. Minutes, maybe hours. Eventually, they run out of breath, and she begins to shovel the dirt back onto Liberty’s body. Orion and Tempo help with wing and hands alike. When they are done, Seriyu uses his tail to smooth the ground over. 

Tempo starts drumming a rhythm she’s not heard before. Little vines begin curling around the empty earth, slowly growing and thickening until they’re covered with leaves, then pale blossoms unfurl their petals like a star. They’re the same colour as Liberty’s wings. 

An old Imperial saying. Hana yori dango. Dango over flowers, function over form. Something she’d always gravitated towards, a belief that was strengthened under Sapphire’s mentorship, despite Ruby’s best protests that the two could coexist. Battles were not meant to be elegant or pretty or to be choreographed for cameras for thousands to see. Battles only proved one’s strength. 

Still though, there is a place for flowers. 

And at the same time, she thinks dimly, neither food nor flowers mean anything to ghosts.

She stares at the pokeball that holds her salazzle. Thinks about how the trainers had said that they had come there - they had deliberately brought the pokemon all the long way from the Dusty Bowl, in order to dynamax it and sample its poisons. She wonders how many more of them do this. How many more dens of tortured pokemon she will find. 

There is something about Galar, something corrupt. She’s known this since she stepped foot in this place. 

 

Gloria looks at the pokeballs that contain her team and knows what to do. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Kabu's gym has long been known as the first real stumbling block for all gym challengers. Annual statistics for the last ten years or so show about a third drop out each year after failing to obtain his badge. A good number of them do not even clear the gym challenge. 

Three wild pokemon, three gym trainers. The former was straightforward - the latter was problematic as they could be as capricious as impidimps, helping or hindering the gym challenger at a whim. It's a tactical decision trainers have to make - to attack or battle with the gym trainers? Run the risk of allowing the gym trainers to attack the feral pokemon or weakening their own team? Take too long and more feral pokemon and more trainers are released into the arena. 

Gloria opts to just sweep them all with a surf the second she enters the arena. As the wave crashes down, she wonders if she’s beaten some kind of record. 

The rolycoly's gym trainer splutters at her as he recalls his fallen pokemon, while his fellow gym trainers trudge wetly backstage, shooting her dirty looks as they go. "When did you even get a drednaw?" 

Two days ago, she thinks. It’s a fair question. Chewtle are common enough, but take years to evolve so that while not outright endangered, they’re difficult to find in the wild, and unusual for a trainer to be carrying them so early in the challenge. There’s a reason why Nessa uses drednaw as her flagship pokemon - and their association with the Water gym was exactly why Gloria decided to catch one, when she found it in a Dynamax Den with Hop. 

She sees his face in the front row in the screens as the backstage team does hurried touch-ups on her face and hair. Eyes bright, pumping his fists by his side the way he would when they clamoured around the TV to look at Leon's matches.

Truly, he was a better friend than she deserved. 

 

I’m sorry, she’d said to Hop when she finally stumbled her way back to Motostoke in the morning, caked in dirt, her blistered hands weeping. I don’t have a good explanation for anything.

He doesn't hug or reassure her. In a way, this is better. 

Gloria, I care about you, and I'm trying to be supportive here, but you can’t just keep doing this. 

He’s got his hands clenched and his lips pressed together. As deadly serious when he used to declare that he would be champion.

He's a weakness, a part of her thinks. Coldly, clinically. One that Rose can use against her. 

No. She needs to trust that he can take care of himself.

He makes her take a long shower in his room while taking her pokemon to the nearest pokecentre to get checked. She comes out of the room and the raboot offers her a towel, warmed by his own flames. He makes her clean her wounds and hands her antiseptic cream and bandages for her hands. He takes her to a cafe and forces her to eat before he says Talk

She does, and it is so different from Raihan who had been careful to not show her judgement until the end. He swears, he interrupts her constantly with questions, and only falls silent when she tells him about being found in the watchtower ruins, gripping the table hard enough that it ends up trembling between them. 

When she is done, he sighs. 

Why didn't you tell me any of this before? 

I didn't want to drag you in. She digs her fingers into her jeans. But. I - It’s still so hard to admit,  that her planning and preparations aren’t enough all her grandiose dreams crumbling. I think I'm in over my head. 

He snorts. What was your first clue? 

I'm not saying you have to help me. Her fingers ache under her bandages. And I know - I know you were mad at the way I sprang everything on you, back in Postwick. I understand. There wasn’t a really good time for a heart to heart, Hop.

S he hates that she sounds like she’s making excuses. 

He furrows his brow, thinking. Then he stands, his chair scraping against the floor of the cafe. 

What do you say about checking out some Dynamax Dens together? 

He grins, and he looks nothing like Leon, and everything like her best friend.

 

She meets Kabu on the field and both bow to each other - his a slight tilt of the head, hers from the waist down, the same depth an apprentice would to their master. Even the stuffiest of Johto Imperials would be proud. 

The crowd screams at the gesture, hungry for any kind of exoticism. His face is impassive as she straightens. 

"Let's make this a good match, Kabu dono." 

She sees her own smiling face on the screens, the one the press has been calling approachable. Champion-material even, when she looks at some forums. 

She wonders how much of it is Rose’s doing. 

And maybe that was unnecessary taunting but she enjoys being an ass sometimes. Even though she’s not supposed to. 

He nods curtly, grips the towel slung across his neck. They walk to their positions on the pitch and the music begins. 

 

I gotta admit, Hop says as they huddle over their camping stove. They'd found shelter in a cave, while a storm crashed outside. Nessa's got a point. 

What about? 

You being a bit of an arse since you've gotten back from Hoenn. 

Her immediate response is denial but she's supposed to be more humble now. So she listens. 

That bad, huh? 

Hop laughs, the dick. Oh come on, don't look at me like that!

She wants to bury her face in her hands and wonders when she'd gotten so self-conscious. She used to be brash and loud and didn't care what anyone thought about her. A lot like Hop when he was younger, if fact. Now he was the one making insightful sharp comments, and she was getting shy. Was this growing up? 

Don't get me wrong - Nessa bringing Granite out on a gym challenge is flat out bullying. But the rest of the stuff - being mean to Milo and snobby about what kind of jobs people to do. He frowns.

It's been hard. Not many jobs to go round, especially back in Postwick.

Her cheeks are burning with shame. Humility doesn't taste any better, swallowed down a second time. She should know better really - her Postwick childhood had never been a bed of roselia blooms. But maybe she’d been too young to care.

Poverty to her had meant not having things. Like the big TV Hop had in his home. Family vacations to Hulbury or Circhester. Only having one floor to their home - but it wasn’t like they needed more space anyway. She’d never thought about jobs, and if her father had a choice working in Wedgehurst, or why they couldn’t move closer to his office so he didn’t have to take the long bus ride every day. 

I've just been going around with my nose stuck up in the air, haven't I? She groans. Makes you wonder how I even have a fan base at all.

And she’d seen the fanbase - some of the bets officiated by the League on which pokemon she was going to field in her next gym battle, how many of them would faint. It’s scary, but still a little thrilling to see how many likes a mundane photo of her cooking curry in the Wild Area will get in a minute. 

I'm not saying you have to be approachable like Lee - Leon. Hop trips over his brother's name and neither of them mention it. But it feels like you're always racing ahead and I'm just left behind. And then - and then you come find me when its convenient.  

Oh. No, no that wasn't what she had wanted at all

I'm sorry, she says. She knows she has a lot to apologise for but she doesn't know how to begin making up for it. I've been an absolute shit friend. You've been the one reaching out to me, and I've just left you behind whenever it was convenient. She twists her shirt beneath her fingers. In my defence, I didn't know how to approach you after - after Postwick. Especially when you wouldn't talk to me in the Motostoke stadium. 

I needed to think, Hop admits. I knew I would blow up at you and say horrible things and our friendship would be over, just like that. 

Gloria laughs. Hop there's nothing you can say that'll make me want to end our friendship. 

Hop doesn't laugh though. Whrn he finally speaks, she can barely hear his voice over the rain. 

It was my fault, he says. We went to the Wild Area because of me. 

The thunder is deafening, like Arceus raining down judgement on them. 

And I left you both alone. 

There are so many regrets between them. But in this cave they are safe, and dry. 

I don't think it's as easy as saying me saying it wasn't your fault. Gloria swallows. Or that there's no blame at all. But it's easy I think, to blame ourselves and not move - not on, she knows neither of them will - forward, at least. 

I miss him. 

Me too. 

I keep thinking of him, as I'm going around Galar. How he would have loved this. 

His thoughts are far too similar to her own.

Well. She reaches for the pot simmering between them and lifts the lid. Shall we? 

 

Kabu's first pokemon is his ninetails. 

She's always wanted one - who wouldn't, after all. It lands on the field with dainty feet, head raised, looking for its opponent. 

She releases Orion into the field. The corvisquire takes to the skies - feathers more black than blue now, a sure sign that he is close to evolution. 

“Byakko, use Will-O-Wisp!” The ninetail’s eyes glow red as it howls. Faint purple flames circle the corvisquire, but he crushes the rawst berry in his beak and shrugs off the attack. 

"Again!" Kabu calls. 

"Orion, taunt!" 

The corvisquire sweeps down towards the ninetails, raking his feathers across its face. The ninetails chokes, extends its paws to swipe at the corvisquire but he's already flown out of range. 

"Agility." He leans forward and flattens his body, dodging yet a blast of flame from the ninetails. 

"Orion, dark pulse.

Ninetails have gained a reputation as exotic housepets. Ideal for wealthy families to show off their influence, because of their rarity, though few have managed to lay their hands on one. 

It was not the same in the far East though. Imperials in Kanto and Johto continued to revere the few ninetails that exist as near-deities, leaving them offerings in the mountains where they are sighted, but also treat all of them with extreme caution if encountered. It all goes back to the ninetails' method of evolution - and the secondary ghost typing it has. 

Each tail a bound soul. She wonders if Kabu had a hand in evolving his ninetails. What humans had agreed to bind themselves to the vulpix, and why. 

She'd learnt this trick, watching old videos of Blue's legendary match against Misty, back when he took on the Kanto league. His ninetails against her championship-level golduck. A fire type winning in a water gym. The hype surrounding that match took a long time to die down.

The beam makes contact with the ninetail's side and it lets out a scream. 

"Incinerate," Kabu orders. The ninetails puffs its cheeks as it gathers air, the spits out a ball of flame. Gloria nods, recognising the strategy. A move with less speed and range than flamethrower, but with a far higher chance of burning its target.  

But also a lot easier to dodge. Orion squawks, turning sharply in mid-flight and the ball of flame past. "Hone claws." 

She spots a tic in Kabu's cheek. He's already divined her strategy. 

"Shadowball!" he calls. 

There are gasps from the audience. People stand, craning their necks for a better look at the shadowy orb forming in ninetail's open mouth. Gloria has heard of ninetails using hypnosis and nightshade before, but never heard of one learning shadowball. Trust Kabu to be the exception. 

"Orion, dodge it and finish it with power trip!" 

He squawks in response but the incoming shadow ball is immense, almost twice his size. Gloria tenses as the edges of the orb hits Orion his wings. He falters for a moment, but recovers and dives down towards the ninetails, raking at the nintails with wing and claw. 

The ninetails cries out, and falls over, tail quivering. 

One down, two to go. 

Kabu nods, acknowledging the loss. He recalls the ninetails and sends out his arcanine, as expected, saving his championship level centiskorch for his grand finale. 

The arcanine lands in the field with a heavy thump, and howls. She can’t help but smile - she'd grown up wanting her own arcanine too. 

She recalls Orion and sends her salazzle out. There'll be no Will-O-Wisp here as well. 

"Hanabi, use toxic!" she calls out. The salazzle raises herself up and spits the poison out - far too quickly for the arcanine to dodge. 

"That's not going to help you! Aka, earth power." 

She grins. She'd been anticipating this. 

As they'd trained, Hanabi leaps onto the sides of the stands, sticking onto the surface as she speeds towards the arcanine’s side of the field. The earth power rumbles on the floor, and she remains untouched by the attack. 

She’d gone over the rules carefully before planning this. There had been nothing against making use of all parts of the field. 

“Aka, get up close and use crunch!” 

The arcanine leaps towards the salazzle.

Now,” Gloria calls. 

The salazzle opens her jaws and venoshock poison pours out, a viscous bubbling liquid that sizzles and blackens the pitch where it lands. The arcanine is far too close to be able to dodge it. He collapses, whimpering as the poison takes hold. 

“Finish it with incinerate!” Hanabi obeys, spitting out the flame. It lands squarely in the arcanine’s face. He howls and does not get back up. 

Kabu nods, and recalls his fallen pokemon. 

“You’ve done well so far, o-jou chan,” he says. “But can you handle my Mukade?”

Centiskorches are well known to be vicious things - but Kabu's one has a reputation for being especially violent. Perfect for stomping down green trainers who thought that two badges made them a real trainer. 

She’s getting overly lordly again. She needs to stop.

Kabu moves to dynamax his centiskorch. 

 

Gloria shudders as she peers into the dynamax den at their feet. It had seemed like a good idea at first, and double battling with Hop had been fun, but now - 

Can't you hear it? The screaming? 

Hop shakes his head, confused.

 

Before he can though, Hanabi spits out a final toxic. The centiskorch shudders as the poison worms into its system. 

She recalls the salazzle just as the centiskorch transforms, and sends out her ace. Seriyu roars as he lands in the field. The crowd is already cheering. 

Gyrados are found much more commonly in Galar than in other regions, for some reason. That still doesn't mean they're commonly used by trainers - magikarp can take anywhere between years to decades to evolve, requiring constant care and attention and food the whole time. And one has to be skilled, or downright stupid, to dare attempt to face down a feral gyrados. Seriyu had already been a grumpy stubborn git as a magikarp, and those qualities had not improved since his evolution. At the very least he knew listening to her would mean being able to sink his teeth in real battles. 

Seriyu’s roar is just as deafening as the centiskorch's cries. 

"Max Flare!" Kabu orders and the field erupts in flames. 

As expected. Gloria guessed that he would want to do that, the harsh light afterwards powering any fire-related moves. 

Seriyu cleaves the fires with a well-placed stream of water from his mouth, shrugging off the attack as though it had just been a flamethrower. She wonders whether this constitution came from his refusal to evolve for years - and getting to gorge himself longer than the average magikarp. It doesn’t matter. She has one pokemon ready for the Championships, at least. 

"Rain dance," she calls. The gyrados roars - and it's not rain he summons, but a bloody typhoon, the storm putting out the flames in seconds. Steam hisses around the centiskorch's long body, and the audience near it cry out in alarm as they centiskorch shakes the droplets off his back. 

"Max Flare again!" Kabu orders. Gloria doesn't miss how the lines on his face deepen. 

Good"Seriyu - you know what to do." 

The hydro pump is aimed directly at the centiskorch's mandibles - right where the flames are about to pour out. The water hisses and steams as it pours down the centiskorch's body, but the force of it is enough  to knock the centiskorch’s head aside. 

"Surf." A hydro pump would do more damage - but she can’t take the chance that it might miss, when she has to keep the centiskorch down and out of commission.  

It's her only strategy against the Dynamaxed pokemon. Keep up relentless attacks. Wait it out. 

The centiskorch screams, a long thin wail that goes on and on and on.

 

Gloria shudders as Hop's corvisquire grows, her hands clasped over her ears. She can barely hear herself speak. She can barely think. They need to end this fight, quick.  

When the pokeball collapses to its usual size, she falls to the ground and clutches at her ears, still ringing with the echoes of the drednaw's and corvisquire's screams. 

Gloria! 

Hop is already by her side gripping her shoulders. What's wrong? 

She blinks away tears. Why can't you hear it? 

You're scaring me, Ria. What's happening? 

Tempo walks over and hands her the pokeball with the captured drednaw, makes a noise of sympathy. 

She has to fight so hard to form every word. Every time a pokemon dynamaxes, I hear it screaming. 

Hop frowns. They’re not supposed to be harmful to the pokemon.

They are. The sounds coming out of her mouth are like sobs now. Hop, if you could hear them. 

But why does it only affect you? 

Arceus knows. She glances at his corvisquire, now back to its normal size. Perfectly normal. Pecks at the floor, as though it had been an ordinary battle.

We need to ask Sonia about this. Now that Professor Magnolia is - he swallows, licks his lips. She’s the one in Galar who knows the most about Dynamaxing. 

Gloria gets up shakily. Breathes. She can't collapse. She can't.

Good point. The caravan rumbles around them. Let’s get out of there. 

 

There’s a burst of dynamax energy again - and the centiskorch shrinks back to its normal size. Still bigger than a human, but Seriyu towers over it now.

“It’s not over yet,” Kabu warns her. 

It is. 

Humility, she reminds herself. It is so hard, when she can see the end in sight. 

“Seriyu, waterfall,” she orders.

And it is over. They cross the field - still partially burnt, partially drowned - and shake hands. 

“You did Hoenn proud,” Kabu says seriously. 

“So have you,” Gloria replies, and means. She has seen Kabu and his monstrous centiskorch battle faster, far more viciously in the Championship finals - this is still a battle appropriate for the gym challenge. 

“I look forward to battling you in the finals then,” he says. “And seeing how much stronger you will be.” No trace whatsoever of the hostility from the Galar mines. She wonders almost if she had imagined it. 

“Thank you, Kabu dono.”

When she takes a photo of her gym badge and uploads it on her Flashgram account, she gets a thousand likes in under a minute. 

 

Do you think it’s because you’re psychic? It’s a fair question, considering how twins were usually associated with psychic abilities.

I feel like I would have realised it sooner if I were. Gloria frowns. You know, I always thought Victor might have been. You remember how he could calm down any angry dubwool just by speaking to them?

Yeah, I do.

She waits for the old sledgehammer to her chest whenever her brother's ghost is invoked. To her surprise, it does not fall.

Maybe there's something to be said about sharing grief.

 

There’s a knock on the locker room, just as she’s finished changing out of her uniform. Kabu steps in and she wants to groan. This feels like a pattern.

“O-jou chan - " 

“Why do you keep calling me that?” she asks. She fights to keep her voice neutral, curious. Not hostile. 

He is startled. “I don’t mean it as an insult,” he says. “I apologise if it came across that way."

She frowns. "Forgive me, Kabu dono, my Imperial is poor. But is it not usually used as a term for a younger girl?" 

"Well," he smiles, and all the sternness in his face melts away. "I might be overly familiar using the term, but we are two strangers in a strange land, are we not?" 

Oh. Oh. Now she feels like a complete arse. 

"About what happened at the Galar Mines - " 

He takes her hand, and shakes it firmly. "It was nothing. I understand we were both tired and had long days." He heads to the door. "Good luck with the press, they'd certainly have questions about your impressive new team members." 

Gloria looks at the piece of paper crumpled in her hand, an address written on it. 

These clandestine meetings with gym leaders are getting ridiculous.  

 

Chapter Text

As expected, the reporters have a thousand questions about Seriyu. 

"He's been a part of my team, since well, before I had a team! Used to carry him around in my arms as a magikarp all over Postwick." Gloria smiles brightly before the cameras, and it's only a little fake. It's not hard to talk about how much she loves her pokemon after all, even if it is before dozens of reporters. "Galar born and bred!" 

Alright, that one does make her wince. 

The reporters lap it all up though, and judging by the crowd outside cheering, she’s said the right thing. 

“I’ll be up early to head to the Wild Area tomorrow, got to end here! Thank you for your time!” 

Thank you for your time. As though she’d sought them out, instead of the reporters flocking to her like a flock of mandibuzz looking to strip a corpse. 

She’s finding it easier to cut and end these interviews, even without having a handler or an agent to brief her or to cut in at the last moment - no small part from observing Leon’s footage. He’d been small and scared in the early footage, a Postwick boy still unused to the lights and noise of the big city. She wonders when exactly, he changed. She wonders when she changed. 

No. She hasn’t. Adaptation is not the same as change, she still is the same person, at the core, fundamentally. 

She pauses. But who was she, really? Peel away at the wall of thorns she’d thrown out   

She loved pokemon, and training them, and caring for them. She loved camping out in the wild and holing herself up in a base somewhere, observing them for hours. She loved battling, and winning - but that was just about every pokemon trainer there was. 

She misses her brother every day. She understood a little more, why her parents had to leave Galar. Why they couldn’t begin to tell her what had happened. Every time she wakes gasping, she thinks of people in Macro Cosmos uniforms come in the middle of then night, there to make her disappear. That didn’t mean she still wasn’t angry with them, or that she has forgiven them.

She’s on speaking terms with three people in this entire country - Hop, Sonia, Raihan - and there’s of course still the huge conflict of interest part with that last gym leader. She misses Marnie, but both of them aren’t great at texting each other, and the girl’s blazed ahead in the gym challenge while Gloria’s been taking her time building her team. 

She came into Galar with grandiose dreams of change but now that she was here she doesn’t know if she can do it.

In short, Gloria Blair is a mess and she doesn’t have the slightest clue on how to fix that. 

As if on cue, her Rotom buzzes. She picks it up immediately once she sees who it is.

“Rain dance, huh?” Raihan teases, the insufferable git. “Wonder where you got the idea to manipulate weather.”

She rolls her eyes, and knows he knows she’s doing that. “You don’t use rain dance in your line up.” 

“Really.” 

“You don’t, which I thank Arceus for, because I would not want to have to deal with your goodra if you did. Thunder and rain dance? How much do you hate your gym challengers?” 

"You know, you could have just given me an idea for - "

"No, you won't, because you would have done it already if it made sense to. Also, your goodra’s a sap sipper, not a hydration goodra.” 

"Well, well." She feels like she's accidentally walked herself into the butt of a joke. "Someone's been swotting." 

She flushes, knowing she’s truly just inflated his already over-inflated ego. "Have to, if I want to trounce you and Leon both by the end of the season.”

“Looking forward to it,” he grins. “So where to next? Hammerlocke?” 

“Gotta head through the Wild Area first.” 

“Mmm. How are your chances with Bea, you think?” 

“With my team as they are?” Seriyu and Orion alone could sweep her entire team, but she's supposed to be learning humility. Also it would look really bad if she lost that kind of declaration. "Pretty good, at this point. Opal’s going to be hell to get through though.” 

“You don’t have to tell the dragon trainer that twice,” Raihan laughs. “Still though - you guys are in good shape. You could just take the train up to Hammerlocke, instead of slugging it through the Wild Area.” 

She pauses. “I can’t tell if this is you trying to get me to drop my training regime so you’d have an easier time against me, or if you’re trying to tell me you want to see me, in a really roundabout way.” 

She doesn’t know if he sounds guilty, ever so slightly, from his laugh. “This feels like a trick question, like I’ll be wrong if I answer either way.” 

“I don’t think I’ll disappear a full week this time.” She thinks of the journey through the Dusty Bowl, factors the amount of time she might need for training. “Two, three days tops?” She tries to sound teasing but doesn’t know if it works. “You can wait that long, surely.” 

“I’ll be counting down,” he promises, and oh does that do things to her insides. 

“I’ve got to go, meeting Hop and Sonia to celebrate.” 

“Of course,” he says. "Good match, Gloria,” he adds after a half-second and then hangs up.  

She puts down the phone and buries her face in her hands. That’s another part of the mess she’s going to have to figure out at some point - and maybe a talk on boundaries, something. She knows he’s the kind of person to flirt like breathing, knows that she shouldn’t take any of it too seriously. So it shouldn’t be too hard really, to say Please don’t send me post-workout photos. Or any photos of yourself really. Or So really, how much do you still think of Leon these days? 

She thinks of how many others, women and men both, would kill to be in her shoes, and shudders. The celebrity culture in Galar is something she doesn’t think she’d ever get used to. Gym leaders should be respected, yes but there’s just something really strange about being able to readily find League approved merchandise of one’s face on a mug. 

She walks to the pokemon centre, the one in the lower levels of the city where Hop was waiting since they both knew it would be a nightmare to try to meet at the one near the stadium. Hop’s already bouncing and pumping his fist in the air outside of the building and Sonia’s waving frantically at her. 

“C’mon, we gotta celebrate!” She laughs, but thinks about how she didn’t celebrate Hop’s win the day before - just gave him a hug, and continued to camp out in the Wild Area before her match. 

Both of our wins,” she says, so she can at least sound a slightly better friend. “Let me just heal up my team quick.” 

She does that while the both of them bicker about where to have their dinner - of course no one would have decided that yet. She sends Raihan a quick message. 

Anywhere you’d recommend in Motostoke for a celebratory dinner? 

He takes just a few moments but then sends her the link to a cafe, maybe fifteen minutes walk from where they are. 

was gonna take u last time :(

You’re the best, she sends before she can think too much of it, and collects her pokeballs from the nurse, cheeks still flushed. She gets complimented on the match, is asked by someone standing by the counter for a League card - and she flushes again, thinks about redesigning her card, something she hastily put together when she first started the Gym Challenge. Maybe she should ask Rai for help when she’s in Hammerlocke - oh no, no she’s not going down that line of thought.

“Got a place!” she says to Sonia and Hop while waving her phone at them.

When they sit down - the cafe all sleek clean lines and pastel-coloured plates - Sonia nods approvingly. "Nice choice." 

Hop has the biggest grin as he looks at Gloria. She already knows what he's going to say and shoots him a glare. Being psychic would be lovely right now. A splitting headache might actually shut him up. 

"Didn't realise this kind of cafe was your thing, Ria.” He waves his fork in the air, indicating the fairy lights and paper lanterns. 

"I just picked it off the net.” She sounds sullen, defensive, even to herself. 

"It wasn't recommended by a certain someone, was it?" 

And of course, Sonia perks up and focuses her full attention onto Gloria. 

"Oh? Who is this certain someone?

"Hop's spouting wooloo dung," Gloria says but she's already bracing herself for the interrogation, knowing she's already lost. Sonia looks so much like her old happy self, a yamper with a bone in its mouth it is determined to chew to the marrow, and she can’t not smile. 

Mmhmm.” Sonia twirls a finger in her hair, still with a sly grin on her face. 

“And how was your week with Nessa, Sonia?” Gloria asks, still trying to change the subject. It works though, Sonia sits up straighter, and chatters about Hulbury and its beaches.

“And how was your time in the Wild Area?” Sonia asks brightly when she’s done. 

She turns to look at Hop, and they both heave a long sigh. 

“Wet,” Gloria deadpans. 

“And hot.” 

“Fuck the microclimates, really.” 

“And it snowed?” 

“Yeah, fuck that.” 

“And there were the Dynamax Dens.” 

“Oh yeah,” Gloria says, remembering. “Sonia, what do you know about Dynamax Dens?" 

At the question, Sonia's demeanour entirely changes - her smile fades and she clutches her head as though she has a headache. 

"Sonia?" 

"You okay?" 

"Yeah just - give me a minute." She massages her temples, grimacing.  

Gloria leans over and refills her glass with water. "Drink." 

Sonia does that at. “That helps,” she says and Gloria feels a tiny bit less useless. 

“You okay?” Hop asks again. 

“Yeah. Yeah I am.” 

Gloria thinks of the medications she has in her bag - potions, antidotes, burn heals - but not a single painkiller. She wants to kick herself for her incompetence. 

“You sure? We can head back to the hotel to rest.”

“No I’m fine, it just happens sometimes.” Sonia takes a deep breath, and smiles so falsely that it hurts to look at. “You were asking about Dynamax Dens!” 

“Sonia - "

“Well, lucky for you,” she claps her hands together, pointedly changing the subject. “I’ve been going through my grandmother’s research on this!” 

Hop shoots Gloria a look and the two of them nod, almost imperceptibly, deciding to leave it be. For now. 

“The first time I went into a den, I found a Wishing Star there. Broke it and that was how Liberty - my butterfree, well. Un-dynamaxed. The last few dens I’ve been to though - haven’t seen any such thing.” 

Sonia frowns. “I mean, all the dens are Power Spots, no? And they’re not dependent on Wishing Stars for energy.” 

“Power Spots?” 

“Yes - basically where there’s a huge cluster of Galar particles.” Sonia frowns. “Surely you know that. All gyms - well, except for Spikemuth - are located on top of power spots.” 

Gloria remembers reading about this now, but trying to recall it now, her mind goes fuzzy, for some reason. “Yeah. Yeah, of course.” 

“I’ve heard about some trainers using Wishing Stars inside of dens to get a pokemon to dynamax. But they’re so rare - it hardly ever happens. That’s probably what you found then.”

So it was sheer dumb luck then - being able to capture Liberty, even without a Dynamax band. 

Gloria wonders how many more close shaves she’s going to have. 

And that’s why you’re going to be more careful, a voice tells her. It sounds like Raihan. 

“And there’s another thing,” Hop adds, and nods at Gloria. 

She’s almost embarrassed to bring it up now - here, in such a mundane setting. It seems like a non-existent problem. Wonders what Sonia would think of her. 

She thinks of Kabu’s centiskorch, just a few hours ago. How no one had heard it.

“Every time I’m near a dynamaxed pokemon, I hear screaming.” 

Sonia narrows her eyes and focuses on her. 

“Really?”

“I’m not crazy.”

“I didn’t say you were.” Sonia pulls a notebook and pen out of her pocket. “Every time you’re near a dynamaxed pokemon?” 

Gloria lets out a breath she doesn’t realise she has been holding and begins to tell her. 

 

Kabu's home turns out to be a cottage with a large garden, only ten minutes out of the Motostoke city gates. Gloria had shoved the paper into Hop’s hands before she left the Budew Hotel, promising that she will call if anything goes wrong. And yes, that he had full permission to come banging on the door to look for her. She hates to admit it but it is nice, being worried over. 

She knocks on the door, her hand gripped around a pokeball. 

"Welcome," Kabu says. She barely recognises him out of his gym uniform and in a black yukata. The house, all rustic Galarian charm on the outside, looks much like the teahouse Raihan had brought her to on the inside. She instinctively takes her shoes off and places them by the door, slipping on the sandals Kabu passes her. She gasps when she turns and sees the back of his neck, the bright green ink on his skin - bare for the first time, she realises. In public, he always has his compression shirts, a towel pressed against his skin.

"Yes, ojou-chan." He gives her a weary smile. "This old man mixed with the wrong company when he was younger." 

He ushers into the sitting room - and Maxie is there, knelt next to a low table and scowling into a cup of tea. 

"This is the brat then?" 

"Be nice, Maxie," Kabu admonishes.

"What," Gloria manages to say. "Is the former leader of Team Magma doing hiding in Galar?" 

Maxie snorts. 

"You killed - hundreds, thousands - " The details had never been quite clear, after Ruby released Celebi and the legendary pokemon erased all the devastation it wasn’t possible to put together exactly who had died and been brought back. It doesn’t matter that they’re not dead anymore - it still counts

"It wasn't me," Maxie snaps and somehow almost looks petulant. "That was Groudon." 

"Team Magma had been engaging in criminal activity before the red orb had even been found, so don’t try to pretend - " 

Maxie sighs and casts a look at Kabu, as though to ask why are we even bothering with this? 

Kabu spreads his arms. "She needs to know what she's up against." 

Maxie snorts. "You can't expect a young girl to - "

"Weren't your plans foiled by a young boy?" 

Somehow, Maxie manages to look even more sour, but he stops his protests. 

"There is something very wrong in Galar," Kabu says softly. 

Gloria blinks. "Well. Yes."  

"I don't think you understand, ojou-chan." Kabu gestures at himself, at Maxie. "I'm not talking about Macro Cosmos and its money dealings. I mean that there's probably some kind of pokemon here, in Galar, asleep." 

“Like the way Groudon and Kryogre were in Hoenn?” 

“Yes.” 

“What evidence is there for this?” 

“I told you.” Kabu seats himself gracefully by the table, and gestures for her to join them. "There is something wrong in Galar.”

Her limbs are stiff as she tries to settle down on the floor. “I don’t understand.” 

“We think of these legendary beasts as mere pokemon still,” Kabu explains. “Not to say that pokemon are not wondrous, but we think that we can classify and categorise the legendaries and dissect the limits of their powers. But to think of Groudon merely as a ground-type pokemon, or Kryogre as water-type does not even begin to scratch the surface of their influence.” 

“What do you mean, influence?” 

Maxie snorts. "Expand the land? The sea? Those were the dreams of madmen. We weren't ourselves. I wasn't myself, until Kabu came and took me from the place." He stares at his fists, scowling hard. "We were pawns, from the moment we learnt their names and tried to dig into their legends.” 

“You’re telling me that from the moment you knew of them, they were able to control you?” It is ridiculous. Impossible. Nothing she has read about, heard about, even remotely mentions this. 

Kabu nods. “Whatever is sleeping in Galar is strong.” 

“Even if that that somehow excuses Maxie’s actions, it doesn’t explain that there’s something in Galar! Or why you would know of anything!” She’s aware she’s shouting, but she can’t help herself. Madness. This is all madness. 

She thinks of Steven Stone - Hoenn's own Leon - bright and untouchable. Who died, and would have stayed dead, if not for sheer dumb luck. 

“The influence it exerts - it’s unmistakable but it's there." 

"What do you mean?" 

"Everyone in Galar seems to be sleepwalking." 

Her head hurts. "What do you mean?" 

"It's strange, from an outsider's perspective." Maxie shrugs, the permanent scowl on his face deepening. "Nothing changes, beyond Macro Cosmos' dealings. Have you thought how odd it is, that everyone follows the Gym Challenge as eagerly as children? How little contact Galar has with the outside world, though Kalos is right next door, and Unova not far away?" 

“Have you ever tried to remember something, only to forget?” Kabu frowns. “When was the last time you remembered to contact your family?”

Maybe I’m just a terrible daughter and friend, Gloria wants to say. Then she thinks of Sonia and her headaches. How they’d started after Professor Magnolia’s death - after they started researching into Galar’s history. 

“Pardon me.” Kabu slips the kimono from his back, and shows her his back. It takes her a moment to understand the strangely familiar geometric shapes inked on his back, skin burned and scarred from a thousand battles, but then she sees it. Groudon in red and Kryogre in blue, wrapped around each other like the Imperial in-you, and Rayquaza’s body a perfect green circle, its head snaking up Kabu’s neck. She's seen drawings like this, on the walls of a dark cave in Hoenn.  

"Maxie, Archie and I - we were exploring Granite cave when we were young trainers, when it changed us all." Kabu's voice sounds like its coming from very far away as he slips the kimono back on. "I was only lucky that I left Hoenn shortly after - or I would have eventually been a part of Team Magma." He smiles wryly while Maxie humphs and tosses his head. 

"You're telling me that your tattoos were a bad college decision, and not because you were a part of the yakuza." 

Kabu laughs. "Well. Yes. We started digging more into the legends after that, and I was so haunted by the images we found I decided to have it on my back." 

Maxie rolls his eyes. "You just wanted to show off to Archie." 

"No, I wanted to show off to you." The smile Kabu gives to Maxie is gentle, shy and Maxie is rolling his eyes, but his cheeks are slightly flushed and - oh. 

“So,” Gloria says, her voice too-loud in the moment. Moving along, have your private time when I’m away from here. “If there’s a legendary influencing the whole of Galar, why aren’t you affected?” 

Kabu smiles then. 

"Shori should be around here - ah." He strokes the air by his knee, and there is a high-pitched squeak. Then the pokemon flickers into view. 

The pokemon that forms isn’t one that she’s ever seen or read about before - small, yellow and orange furred and with big blue eyes. Unspeakably adorable. 

“Victini latched onto me when I took a brief holiday in Unova, about ten years ago.”

Victini. She’s heard about it - more of folktale, than the kinds of mythos that Celebi and Rayquaza had but now that she recalls its power - 

“You’re telling me you own the goddamn pokemon that will guarantee you win every battle?” 

Victini makes a tiny squeak and waddles towards her, eyes bright and giving her a toothache as she looks at it. It rubs itself against her outstretched hand - a hand she doesn’t even recall moving - and yes its fur is just as soft as it looks. 

“Well. My job as a gym leader is to ensure that the right trainers win in my gym so we have an agreement that I don’t win every battle, just the ones that I want to. And that ability is more urban legend than anything, but Victini, like most legendary pokemon, exert a special kind of influence. In a way, Victini is cancelling the effect of the one in Galar.” 

“And… Victini is protecting you?” She wrinkles her nose, tries to remember what she can about the rest of its powers. 

“In a fashion. It's not a perfect barrier." 

Gloria isn't listening, not really, still trying to recall what she knew about Victini. “I mean, it’s fire and psychic type, I can’t - “

“You’re still thinking of them as categories,” Maxie snaps. “You don’t understand what they are. What they can do.” 

“And what can they do? Why didn’t Kabu end up in Team Magma then?” 

“I left Hoenn to travel, after I failed to inherit my family’s gym,” Kabu says. “I was young then, and foolish, and angry at my sister. I see now why my father chose to pass it to her. But I was lucky - that distance was what allowed me to break from Groudon. And when I heard about what had happened ten years ago. I had to go back to Hoenn to look for my friends. To see if they were alive.” 

“What happened to Archie then?”

Maxie presses his lips together. “He’s dead,” he says, so curtly that Gloria doesn’t dare ask me. 

Gloria huffs. “Let’s say I do believe everything you say is true. Then why, with your little god of fire and victory, have you not done anything about Galar? Why stay here?

"I like Galar," Kabu says simply. "And with the shield that encloses it, this sleeping pokemon’s influence, it is now the perfect place for an internationally wanted criminal to hide.” 

Maxie just shakes his head. “I’m not going back to Hoenn,” he says sullenly. “The Red Orb - it’ll kill me to be back there.” 

Gloria stands slowly. "I should be reporting the both of you." 

Kabu smiles. It's a perfectly genial, polite expression, and yet a shiver goes down her spine. "I'd like to see you try." 

Right. So that option is out, at least until she has an ace that she’s sure can overcome the almost godlike being that is currently nuzzling at her knee. 

Then Kabu turns away, and that coldness is gone. 

“I have a feeling - whatever it is in Galar wants me here,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

He just smiles, and doesn’t reply. 

“And what about you, little girl? Why are you so special?" 

Gloria turns to Maxie, frowning. “What do you mean?” 

“You’re not sleepwalking, not yet. You’ve come in and you’ve upset the order of things in here. Whose protection did you get?”

She blinks. “No one. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Maxie snorts and he drains all the liquid in his cup - which she is starting to suspect, is not tea. 

“I think we’re done, Kabu.” 

“Oh, not quite yet, I think.” Kabu turns to her and she does not like the twinkle in his eye. “How are you and Raihan doing?” 

Victini squeaks as she accidentally tightens her fingers too tightly into its fur. 

“We are not going there.” 

“In case you’re wondering, all the gym leaders know, yes."

She wants the ground to open up and swallow her up. She settles for fixing a neutral expression on her face while screaming silently. 

"Milo's a sweet boy, but even he'd get suspicious when Raihan takes a special interest in a gym challenger.” 

“We are not having this conversation.” 

Kabu laughs and pats her head, the patronising old git. “Enjoy your youth, ojou-chan.” 

When the door closes behind her, she finds she cannot move.

It is all too much

She sinks to the ground. I’ll get up, she thinks. In a minute. 

She doesn’t mean to, but she can hear Kabu and Maxie speaking. 

She's forgotten, yes. 

And do you still think she stands a chance? 

She understands enough. 

I wish I had your faith, Kabu. 

She does too. 

Chapter Text

Bede is self-aware enough to know that he’s only one of the Chairman’s many pet projects.  

It doesn’t matter. He’ll do anything he’s asked. There are debts that can be negotiated, payments deferred, deadlines extended. Then there are debts which can only be paid with a lifetime of service. 

This is what one does for the man who has plucked him from the gutters. 

He’d been a child when he first met the Chairman. Smaller than most of the boys in the orphanage, scrawny and underfed as they always stole his food and he could never fight back. They’d laughed at him often, for his soft voice and feminine face. 

It had been one of the Chairman’s routine visits - speak to the children, write out a cheque, shake hands with other suited people, photographer discreetly snapping photos in a corner - when he’d spotted Bede hanging quietly at the back while the others clamoured to the front asking for photos, tickets to see a match with reigning Champion. The Chairman had been the one to smile at him. And then he was asked to come forward. 

After that, the - well, not quite adoption, but more like fostering and sponsoring by Macro Cosmos. Had his tuition paid for at a fancy private school Hammerlocke, one that accepted boarders so he was moved from the orphanage. In the summer, he was given internships in Wyndon with the company, and he stayed in the company apartments by himself. 

He used to cry and cling on to the Chairman on his rare visits. Looking back, it was mortifying. He understands why the Chairman stopped by as rarely as he did then. 

He was given hatenna quickly after that. Small, cute, easy to look after. You just have to strangle your emotions into submission first. He learns to smother down any extreme feeling quickly. Visits from the Chairman became more subdued formal affairs after that, and happened more frequently.

After a couple of years, he started getting late-night calls over to Wyndon Tower. The Chairman’s private chef would cook and serve them dinner in one of the Chairman's many private rooms. It would usually be late and Bede would only pick at the one food instead of eating, having eaten dinner earlier in the boarding house. He answers questions about his progress in school when asked, but it is mostly the Chairman who talks, painting out his visions for Galar. After all those years being alone one learns to lap up any other attention one is given.

One can’t walk away from a debt like this. Especially not when the man owns most of Galar.

He doesn’t know what he feels for the Chairman anymore. Tangled threads of love, gratitude, idolatry. It doesn’t matter. He sits where he’s ordered. Wears the clothes the Chairman picks out for him. Lies still when asked. Hides his flinches when touched, keeps a smile on his face at all times. Offers himself up, in pieces and in wholes, until there is nothing left. It doesn't matter since he was always the Chairman's anyway. 

Bede listens. Bede obeys. 

He runs into the Champion at Wyndon Tower from time to time - a loud boisterous boy who needs a minder to ensure he doesn't get lost all the time. 

Bede doesn’t understand the fuss this boy gets. The leniency, the amount of attention he gets from the Chairman. But Bede is good. Bede is obedient. Every day he sets aside petty feelings like jealousy. The Chairman will know of his true value, in time. 

Then the Chairman sponsors him for the Gym Challenge. 

He takes the train to Wedgehurst and pays the Pokemon Professor a visit, as the Chairman suggests. Asks her what she knows about Dynamaxing, as he's been asked to collect any Wishing Star he finds on his journey. She takes one look at him and makes him stay for tea, won’t stop asking probing questions about his life. He can feel the pity dripping from every gesture, but he sips his tea quietly and answers when asked. She doesn’t give any useful information about Dynamaxing, but she does give her blessing as he leaves. He hops on the evening train to Motostoke for the Opening Ceremony.

And that’s when he meets the Champion’s brother. 

The boy laughs at his coat, at the hatenna clutched in his arms. Makes him think of the children back in the orphanage. The boy talks about how he’s going to be Champion, just like his brother. Laughs at Bede when Bede stutters that he will be the one to beat Leon. He’s ready. Why else would the Chairman have sponsored him? 

The Champion’s brother just laughs, cruel and mocking.

He wonders then - if the reason why there are so many loud obnoxious boys out there is because the world keeps rewarding them for that behaviour. Boys are supposed to be brash, and rude, and arrogant, and they get a pat on the head and a friendly punch on the shoulder for it. 

What does this mean then for quiet ones like him. 

There is another boy at the table, one wearing a red shirt and a gentle exasperated expression. He kicks his friend and tells him to shut up, but it’s too late - the damage has been done. 

Bede never made it to the Opening Ceremony that year. He never even gets off the train at Motostoke, just continues riding it to Wyndon, curled up in his seat and only moves when the conductor checks the train at the end. 

Oleana sighs when she finds him shaking in his dormitory the next day, and tells the Chairman that he is too young. 

Leon was ten when he won his Gym Challenge. 

Bede knows he’s a disappointment all round. Everything he does after - good grades, graduating early from university - does not make up for his failure. The Chairman never quite looks at him the same after that. 

He knows that growing up means letting go of the past. He has never learnt to let go. Only made an art of pretending that the bad things do not exist. 

Andof course, the shock when the Champion’s brother comes up to him again at the Opening Ceremony. The boy - a man now, really, his brain helpfully supplements, tall and broad and with a deep baritone after puberty’s done its job - doesn’t even seem to recognise Bede. It’s strange. He’d thought about the boy on the train for so many years until he’s loomed like a dynamaxed pokemon before him. And now, he tries to be friendly. As though their meeting hadn’t ruined his life. 

And he seemed genuinely shocked upon realising that Bede is a girl. 

So when Bede runs into Gloria in Motostoke at the south entrance of the city, and Gloria demands What is your bloody problem with Hop he is grumpy. No, he's furious. 

Hattrem is in her pokeball but its instinctive now, to keep his temper in check. Smoother it all down to ash. Gloria’s face is flushed, twisted up in annoyance. It’s an unseemly display of emotions, really.

“Trainer Victoria,” he drawls. He's long learnt from watching ridiculous people like the Champion, like the Hammerlocke gym leader, that arrogance gets one far. 

What a stupid nickname. Pretentious, really. He wonders why she picked it. There’s probably a press interview somewhere if he can be bothered to look it up. “How nice of you to say hello.” 

She rolls her eyes. “You lose any kind of politeness from me once you call my friend trash. I’m only going to ask one more time - what is your problem with Hop?”

He narrows his eyes. “Have you tried asking him what his problem is with me?”

She looks like she’s ready to punch him but flings her hands up in the air instead. “No, I didn’t think to do that at all, how silly of me - of course I did, and he’s just as clueless as I am!” 

“Oh?” Bede can’t remember the last time he was this angry. He’s entitled to it, he thinks, having run through that incident over and over again in his head. “How convenient.” 

He doesn’t know why - maybe because he’s angry, maybe because she's the first person in ages he's spoken to more than once beyond the Chairman and Oleana, but he tells her. Not everything, just about the train incident. Just enough so she knows. 

He expects her to be upset. He expects her to defend her friend. But instead, she trembles, almost imperceptibly, but he’s grown used to picking up all sorts of subtle body language cues over the years. 

“You met Victor.” 

“Victor?” Oh. Oh. Hadn’t she said something about a twin? 

“Bede.” She looks like she’s struggling to hold back tears. “I can’t apologise on Hop’s behalf, and it was a shit thing he did. But he wasn’t coming from a mean or spiteful place. Hop is… was just like that.”

He’s told himself this, sometimes. It doesn’t erase the damage of the words, or everything that came after. 

“It is what it is,” he says. He just wants to crawl back into bed, but he has too many things to do for the Chairman. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us actually have important things to do.” He leaves her standing alone by herself, trying not to pay attention to the grief emanating from her body in dark waves. 

For the first time in years, he feels a pang of guilt. 

 

Gloria doesn’t know how long she stands there, trying to pull herself together. Far too long. She’s lucky, that it’s early in the morning and there aren’t crowds around. She can only imagine the social media chatter then - League Challenger Stands Shellshocked For Hours

She heaves in a breath and takes one step, and then another. She can do this. 

She thinks of Victor and Hop on a train. Victor’s smile as he listens to Hop chatter. Of a pale-haired boy passing by with a hatenna in his arms. 

Would it have been better if she’d been there? Would she have joined in Hop on his teasing, or taken Victor’s side to be peacemaker? Would she even have noticed the harshness of Hop’s enthusiasm? 

Like so many things, she will never know.

Move. She screams to herself. 

Sonia had decided the night before to take a train back to the lab in Wedgehurst, saying she needed to look for something. She'd shooed off both Hop and Gloria's offers to accompany her, telling them to focus on their own journeys. Hop had wanted to stay with Gloria then, but she said, as gently as she could, that she needed space. 

Too little love and one starves. Too much love suffocates. She wishes she could be less ungrateful. 

She’d done her best to make it up to Hop in the morning, promising to call him that night, that she would meet him in Hammerlocke for dinner. 

She still hasn't told him about what had happened at Kabu's place. All that reality redefining information. 

There is something very wrong with Galar. 

She will process it. Later. 

She doesn't understand what Kabu expects her to do with that information. He's the one with the victory pokemon with him. 

Outside of Motostoke, she lets Orion, Tempo, and Hanabi loose. She'd decided to put the drednaw in the storage system, thinking she'd trade it - it had been more of a showmanship pokemon for Kabu’s gym anyway. 

Her team is progressing as fast as humanly possible, but she only has a little over a month now for the Championship. 

Flying against Fighting. Poison and Steel against Fairy. Steel and Water against Rock. 

She still needs a good counter against Piers and Raihan. Liberty would have been perfect in Spikemuth, but no point thinking about that now. Not for the first time, she mourns her Hoenn team - her salamance would be perfect against Raihan’s goodra. And really, she should be building a team to beat Leon, not the other gym leaders, since the goal was the Championship seat. 

Time. Time is what she needs. But dragons take years to train.

Leon beat the League on his first try. 

Tempo knows he's too heavy to climb onto her now, but he tries it anyway, touching her cheeks and making soft concerned noises. 

"It's okay," she says out loud, trying to stop radiating all her fears out to her pokemon. They don't need to be antsy too. "We're going to have a good day." 

They do not proceed to have a good day. 

Everything is fine, her pokemon clearing a neat path up until they cross the Motostoke Riverbank and the sandstorm kicks in. Gloria has her goggles on and her hood up within moments of it starting - but the sand still grates at her exposed skin.

She debates between recalling her pokemon and training them in the area. They're going to have to learn to deal with sandstorms sooner or later. 

She releases Seriyu, who roars as he forms, especially grumpy at being let out into the storm. 

"Fifteen minutes, and you can all go back in!" she calls. 

Seriyu growls and blasts water from his mouth in a circle around him. Rhyhorns, rolycolies and suduwodo flail and fall over from the force of the water. Hanabi sticks close to the gyrados to avoid getting splashed by the water, spits her poison at the pokemon still struggling to get up. Seriyu’s grown protective over the salazzle, despite the violence of their first encounter, and is especially careful to shield her from any stray drops of water. It's nice to see her pokemon build their trust with each other. Tempo finishes off stragglers with razor leaf while Orion goes bother a group of squabbling skorupi, who had come out from the sand at the commotion. 

Orion is barely battered by the sand - good, he’d hopefully be a corviknight by the time they get to Stow-on-Side. She makes a mental note to make sure he gets more gravel in his diet, especially while they’re in the Dusty Bowl. Once they make it through this sandstorm, that is. 

Underneath her hands, her bike buzzes and then speaks. "Bzzt - I can use your phone to scan for safer places.

She starts, having completely forgotten about her bike being essentially possessed by a sentient ghost. 

"Right. Do that.” 

The little ghost pokemon wizzes out of the bicycle and into her phone hanging by her side. 

"There's a day care centre three klicks to the northeast. You can shelter there." 

"Right.” 

She’s still not sure how she feels about rooms in bicycles, or phones, or Pokedexes. But she’s not going to ignore help when she gets it.

She glances down at her watch. Her team has cleared the entire area. 

“Good job!” she calls out, looking at them closely. Yes, run ragged, but they can still last a while longer. Impressive, given the sandstorm. She returns them into their pokeballs and sets for the direction that the room had pointed out. 

When she squints, she can still see the clear skies across the other side of the riverbank. 

Fucking microclimates. 

 

The day care is run by an elderly couple, who usher her in the second the door opens. 

"We have a spare room in the back, go ahead and use the shower!" She can't stop apologising for trekking sand across the day care, but the old lady just shoos her to the back after handing her a towel. 

The sand is everywhere. She wants to ask Raihan how he deals with it and catches herself typing a text to him. She can ask him herself when she’s in Hammerlocke. 

When she emerges into the living room, she’s immediately bombarded with warm solicitous remarks.  

“Come have some tea! It’s been a while since we’ve had a visitor!” 

“You’re one of the Gym Challengers, aren’t you, sweet?” 

She gets their names - Ethan and Lyra. She wants to sink down into the cushions in her exhaustion but her mother’s voice is already echoing in her head about being polite, so she’s at the edge of her seat, carefully sipping her tea. 

“Isn’t it hard running a day care in the Wild Area?”

“Oh, it’s not as bad as you might think it is, once you get used to the weather. Our daughter runs our other branch over at Route 5.” 

Gloria remembers passing by it on her way to Hulbury. “Why aren’t you running that branch then?”  

Ethan huffs. “Young people these days! They don’t have the stamina - not of course, referring to you,” he adds, though still crotchety. “Since you were out training in that sandstorm and all.” 

“I still wouldn’t have the gumption to actually live here.” 

“We’re really only a quick ride away from Motostoke," Lyra interrupts. 

“Do you use the corviknight cabs?” Gloria asks, surprised. They’re expensive to be used for grocery runs. 

Lyra cackles delightedly. “Now why would I do that when I have a perfectly good corviknight of my own?” 

“But the Macro Cosmos rules - "

“Chairman Rose can come visit us himself if he’d like to register a complaint,” Ethan snarks. "That is, if that arse can even make the trek here without being blasted down by a hailstorm.” 

Gloria snorts into her tea, but can’t help but smile. It’s nice to know then, that there are still people finding their own small rebellions against the Macro Cosmos rule. 

Then the first bang happens and she almost jumps out of her seat. “Is everything alright back there?” Barely before finishing her question, there’s a drawn-out wail.  

"We picked up a mimikyu near Giant's Mirror last night, after it had been roughed up in a fight. Its disguise is broken, so we're just leaving it alone until it finishes fixing it." 

Mimikyu. They’re rare, but powerful heavy hitters, and fairy and ghost type. This one might just be what she needs. 

“Is it alright if I try speaking to it?” 

Lyra blinks. “You can try, but really, I wouldn’t advise it.” 

She's already out of her seat and digging through her bag. “Thank you!” 

“Door to your left, all the way at the end!” Ethan calls. 

She takes out her berry container and the sewing kit Ruby had insisted that she bring along. Although he was probably hoping she would be using it to sew accessories for her pokemon or something.

She knocks on the door, just to be polite. “I’m coming in,” she calls, and is very careful to keep her eyes shut once she cracks the door open. 

The room is chilly. She doesn’t bother flicking on the light switch as she shuts the door behind her, and instead crouches low on the floor and reaches out with her hand. Then she waits. 

She knows its coming when her skin begins to prickle. Then - something touches her hand. She feels a weight, though her fingers can’t seem to grasp hold of anything.

“I’m not looking, I promise,” she says, her eyes still shut. She holds her other hand out, which is full of berries - oran, lum, leppa, citrus, persim - hoping that it will like at least one of the ones there. There is that ghostly weight again, tendrils crawling over her skin as she feels it reach out for a berry. 

“If you give me your disguise I promise that I’ll fix it,” she calls out. 

Its answering screech makes all her hair stand on the back of her neck. She takes a steady breath, thinks of her banette and how, despite the weight of doom and hatred that emanates from it, would just enjoy being held after a long day.

She’s not sure how long she stays like that, crouched low, the berries in her hand disappearing one by one. In the dark, the sound of the mimikyu’s chewing and slurping is the only sound apart from her breathing. Finally, when the last one is plucked from her hand, she feels soft breath against her hand. 

“Will you let me?” she asks softly.

Another long moment. Then she feels the fabric dropped onto her waiting hands. 

“Thank you,” she says. “I’m going to turn my back now, and I’ll have to turn on my light to do this. Just wait a moment, will you?” 

Another long screech. She does not flinch.

She pulls out her phone - still inhabited by the rotom - and speaks to it.

“You can make the phone float, can’t you?”

“Bzzt - of course.” It almost sounds offended that she had to ask, and then springs out of her hands and into the air, glowing softly. 

“Okay. I’m going to need you to use the phone torch and shine a light at my hands - and my hands only.” 

She can make out the pokemon’s large eyes on the phone's screen, sees it blink a couple of times. “Oh,” it says, and the mimikyu screeches again. 

“Can you do that?” 

The light springs out of the back of her phone, and into her hands, as she asked.

“Thanks.” 

She’s hyperaware of the tendrils creeping up around her back, the soft breathing against her neck. She counts to ten, takes slow even breaths, trying to not shiver or flinch. There’s a reason why most people don’t specialise in ghost types. 

“Give me a few minutes,” she says out loud. 

She mentally thanks Ruby over and over again for teaching her - over a few very painful afternoons - how to sew. At least enough so she can fix this. She makes a few stitches around the disguise’s neck so that it will stay upright. Then she mends the remaining stray rips and tears, all the while fighting every instinct telling her to leave the room and never come back again.

“Alright, it’s done!” She holds out the disguise, keeping her eyes shut again. “Here!” 

The rag lifted out of her hands. The mimikyu screeches again, but the sound is slower, gentler now. “I’m going to open my eyes now, okay?” 

There’s that ghostly weight on her hand again, and she tries not to flinch or gasp at the coldness, her body rebelling against the weight of it. It makes a sound, high-pitched and drawn out. 

She chokes - there is much sadness, so much loneliness seeping from the pokemon’s touch. It makes that sound again and she instinctively reaches out to press its small heavy body to her chest, rocking in place. She wants to tell the mimikyu that it will be alright, but she can’t bear to bring herself to lie, only makes wordless tearful promises as she cradles the mimikyu in her arms.   

 

Ethan frowns. “Are you sure? The thing’s completely feral.” 

"Are you sure you wouldn't like a baby toxel instead?” Lyra adds. "We just had one hatched from the last batch of eggs." 

"Thank you," Gloria says, smiling as she hefts the mimikyu in her arms. It gurgles slightly, pleased at the attention. Her hands have already grown numb from the cold emanating from under the disguise, but it's nothing she can't get used to. "But I think I'll have my hands full with this one here." 

Chapter Text

Hammerlocke is the oldest Galarian settlement. First built as a small castle, then expanding as its fiefdom grew and it has only managed to go on and on for centuries. Hammerlocke is old stones and dizzyingly tall turrets, rookidees cawing out a song from their perches. Hammerlocke is people pushing through the streets and buses lurching through cobblestoned roads. Hammerlocke is ghosts whispering through ivy-covered walls. She shivers, even though the sun is out. 

She finally allows herself to text Raihan when she walks up the Hammerlock steps in the morning, snow still melting off her clothes and her shoes squelching with every step. Nothing saucy, just to let him know that she’s there after the last two days of silence. She’s beaten enough trainers and has a decent amount of cash on her now. Enough that she can indulge in the luxury of burning her clothes and buying a new set. She wonders if this is going to be a tradition every time she passes through the Wild Area.

She's got another message in the group chat she's in with Sonia and Hop though, Sonia letting them both know she's in the city. 

 

Hopster: Aww I'm almost in Stow-on-side already! 

Gloria: Just got to Hammerlocke. Where are you? 

Magnolia Queen: Ooh, I'm at the Vault in the west side of the city. Come find me there! 

Gloria: Let me get sorted at the Pokemon Centre first 

 

At the Pokemon Centre, she leaves her pokemon with the nurse and then makes use of the centre’s shower facilities. The Water Gym uniform is her last clean set of clothes left. Yes, she definitely needs to get new clothes after this, and visit a laundromat. Good thing Sonia will always be up for a shopping trip. 

 

Gloria: Headed to the Vault. Where do I find you?

Sonia: I'm in the tapestry room upstairs.

 

It’s difficult to not miss the Vault, what with all the tastefully weathered signs pointing any tourists to its direction. She pushes through the heavy double doors, and starts a little at the room inside - all bright lights and modern furniture. She wouldn’t have been surprised if they had gone with candlelit chandeliers and suits of armour to keep up with the medieval theme. 

"Hi," she says to the receptionist. "Where's the tapestry room?" 

The woman blinks at her through her spectacles. "Oh, that's one of the restricted sections. You'd need special permission to go there." 

"Who do I get special permission from?" If she needs to file paperwork she's just going to leave and wait for Sonia somewhere else because Sonia had not mentioned this. 

"Oh, you could just ask the Hammerlock gym leader - you're lucky, he's just in that room to the left." The woman's face goes very pink. 

She walks to the room the receptionist points to, and sees the gym leader with his arms crossed, towering over a brown-haired man wearing a Macro Cosmos uniform and, despite the fact that they're indoors, sunglasses and a cap. She keeps a respectful distance so it’s not immediately obvious that she's eavesdropping. 

"If this matter is so important, why isn't the Chairman setting up a formal meeting himself?" 

"Gym Leader Raihan, we both know the Chairman is busy - but he had sent me ahead to check - 

“For the last time - that land is still Hammerlock city property, and Macro Cosmos is going to have to go through the necessary procedures if they want to drill there. You can tell your Chairman that, which I'm sure he knows. I don't make up the rules." 

The Macro Cosmos employee makes a disgruntled noise of assent, and leaves the room, brushing past Gloria without an apology. 

Well. That is rude. 

She turns back to face Raihan only to find that he's already closed the distance between them. 

“Gym Leader Raihan,” she greets, suddenly very shy. 

“Trainer Victoria,” he snarks back. He’s smirking, and she doesn’t miss the way his eyes flick down to her exposed skin.  

“Are you sure you want to talk to a powerful conglomerate about doing their paperwork? I think their legal teams are better staffed and paid than city governments." 

“Well, that’s where governing bodies still have the discretion to approve or reject applications, no matter how prettily their paperwork is put together.”

She can't help but snort at that, breaking the stilted formality of their conversation and he smiles, a gentler expression now, as though he's glad to have made her laugh. 

“So why did you decide to pay me a visit at work, Gloria? Did you miss me that much?” 

She rolls her eyes and makes sure he sees it. “I’ve been told I need your permission to head up into Treasure Vault, O Great Gym Leader Raihan. Please, may I gaze upon the wondrous relics of our great nation's history?" 

She does not like the gleam in his eyes, or the flash of teeth. She does not.“It does sound nice when you beg." 

"I'm going to smack you." 

"I did miss you," he smiles, an expression that widens as he takes in her deepening flush. He jerks a thumb at the door at the back of the room. "Head out, climb up the stairs to your left and it's the first door you see. Sonia's there.” 

She's still unable to breathe after miss you. "Thanks," she manages.  

He's got his hands dug into the pocket of his hoodie, his airy smirk on his face, the picture of nonchalance. “Meet me outside of the gym at seven? I’ll show you a proper Hammerlocke dinner.”

“You’re just going to take me to a pub, aren’t you?"

He laughs. “Maybe. I’ll see you?”

He still has that punchable smirk on his face, but she catches the hesitation at the question. Is he - could he actually be insecure? 

Ridiculous. 

"Yes. You will." 

“Cool.” 

The Vault itself is dimly lit - all the windows covered and the lighting in the room kept low to protect the valuables. She wonders if they get psychic types to clean the room though - there isn’t a speck of dust anywhere, despite its size. Its sectioned off into rooms filled with different kinds of relics - weapons and armour, courtly gowns the old royal family used to wear, jewellery, books. She fights the urge to head into the books section and follows the signs that lead to the tapestry room. Or rather, rooms, many of them training off one after another, until she finds Sonia at the very back,  examining what looks like the oldest tapestries of the lot. 

"Hey," she calls. 

Sonia is massaging her temples but turns and throws her arms around her. "Gloria!" 

"It's only been a couple of days," she laughs, but the hug is nice all the same. "What are you looking at?" 

Sonia frowns, all earlier enthusiasm wiped out. "It's really odd - you remember our history lessons on the Darkest Day?" 

"Mm, yeah. Something about there being some kind of storm three thousand years ago, and a hero saving the whole of Galar?” Gloria eyes the tapestries on the wall - slightly ragged looking, but their colours still bright. Two of them with dark storm clouds woven in. 

"Two heroes," Sonia corrects, waving up at the figures on the tapestry. “See that’s the thing. I don’t know when our national history lessons started referring there as only one but I remember reading about there being two when I was younger. Before I started school Gran would read to me about them."

“So someone is rewriting our founding history?" It's a little far fetched, Gloria thinks. And why does it matter? But she hasn't seen Sonia so enthusiastic in months so doesn't have the heart to damper the mood. "Why?”

“I have no idea! But look!” Sonia waves at the tapestries on the wall. “Fairy silks. Only way these could have lasted so long.” 

“They’re from our founding years?”

“No, probably nowhere as old as a thousand years.” Sonia taps the side of her face and hums. “By the art style and colour usage, I’d say five hundred at most. But I’m rusty with my textile history, and fairy silks are hard to date because of how resilient they are. Even then, it’s still proof that the old legends are about two heroes wielding a sword and shield, not the one.” 

“There was only one hero at Budew Inn,” Gloria says, remembering the large gaudy statue. She still has no idea where Sonia is going with this conspiracy theory, but Sonia’s energy is infectious. 

“That statue was commissioned by Chairman Rose.” Sonia adds, and Gloria’s blood freezes. 

Maybe it isn’t really a farfetched conspiracy theory. Maybe it's all part of the Macro Cosmos control over the region. 

Or maybe Gloria is just growing mad. 

But Rose. It has to be some kind of plot. 

She blinks and realises Sonia’s calling her name. Probably not for the first time, given the concern on her face.

“Sorry,” she says. “Blanked out there for a moment.” 

“No problem.” Sonia steps back, as though to examine Gloria. She feels a flash of irritation - she’s fine - and then guilty. Her friend is just trying to show care. “Anyway, I’m done here! When are you headed to Stow-on-Side?”

“I think I’m going to spend the night here,” Gloria says. “It’s been a rough couple of days - “ with far too many sandstorms and blizzards to boot - “and I was thinking we could go shopping.” 

As expected, Sonia’s eyes light up immediately. "We need to work on your image," she says, clapping her hands. "You're three gyms in and you haven't really built that much of a following. Also, you need a hair cut."

Gloria immediately wants to protest that she only wears the Gym Challenge uniform for her matches anyway, and maybe Sonia can walk through a sandstorm. She sighs instead, knowing that the older woman is right. Image seems to be everything in Galar. “What were you thinking?” 

Hair first. Sonia takes her to a shop that has an honest to Mew Galarian ponyta inside the shop. She wonders how they stop it from shitting all over the plush carpet, and shifts when the ponyta eyes her, as though it knows what she was thinking. 

It probably did. Psychic types. 

They clean up her hair - which has grown long and shaggy in the last month - she's left with a chin length bob, like the sleeker more sophisticated one she'd sported when she was a teen. "Low maintenance, hun," the stylist assures. "You won't need to cut it again until you get back to Hammerlocke. Good luck on your challenge." 

Gloria stammers her thanks, shifting uncomfortably at being recognised. Then Sonia takes her to another street full of boutiques - all of them claiming to be as practical as they are stylish, perfect for the trainer on the go. 

Sonia dives immediately into a shop’s headgear section. “Most trainers would have a hat of some sort so they can stand out, especially in the stadiums."

"Please do not put a snapback on me.”

Sonia only laughs. “Believe me when I say I’ve been on Leon’s case for years for his. Unfortunately, it's too much part of his branding now.”

They go through the shops, and decide that Gloria should keep to her uniform of jeans and plain shirts, and have a few key items that will stand out in photos - think of Red's cap and jacket, and how he wears whatever underneath and Gloria just nods, trusting Sonia to not pick anything too ridiculous. 

A white sweatshirt. Jeans. Those are easy, and what Gloria would wear anyway. Sonia finds a puffy green hat that doesn't look ridiculous. Green tartan socks that make Gloria think of Postwick. A red varsity jacket and red sneakers that Sonia assures will pop in pictures. Her old gloves are worn out but she figures she can use the water gym ones when travelling.

Then again to a stylist for makeup. Sonia somehow seems to know where to go again and this stylist - Henrik from Unova he introduces himself as - is at least someone who is less like a ponyta and more like a sleek corviknight so she at least feels safer when eyeing the many brushes in his hands.

"You've been mostly going for that fresh-faced look in your gym battles, haven't you?" 

"Less what I've been going for but more what the stylists have been slapping on me backstage," Gloria mumbles, slightly embarrassed at the scrutiny she was getting. 

"Mmm. Well you don’t have a type speciality that we can play up.” He sticks his hands on his hips. “And the cute look is definitely out.” 

“The minimal makeup thing is fine. She just needs a focal feature, I think." Sonia is as intent as she was when examining ancient tapestries. “Eyeshadow’s too fussy, especially as a gym challenger.” 

“Lipstick?” 

“Red?”

“Please, no,” Gloria protests weakly.

Henrik hums as he selects a bullet from a shelf and hands it to Gloria for her approval. It’s a not the bright cinderace red Gloria had been thinking, but a deep red shade that makes her think of dried blood. 

Morbid. But she’s willing to try this. She nods, and lets Henrik apply it with a brush. 

When she looks at herself in the mirror, she’s surprised by how much the rich colour has changed her face - she looks immediately older, fiercer, more sophisticated. 

“Good?”

She nods.

“Right. Just take this and get the makeup artists to apply it before your matches. And make sure they avoid the pinks and glosses.” 

She notes the name of the lipstick as she tucks it into her pocket. Bad Blood. She can't help but smirk at the irony of this. 

"Yes!" Sonia pumps her hands up in the air when they leave the shop. "You should put this up on your Flashgram."

Gloria does think she looks good but is still hesitant. "Isn't that a bit much?"

"The entire point to Flashgram is that it's a safeish space to be an attention whore. Put it up."

She's dragged to a suitably pretty corner on the street and Gloria is relieved to see she's not the only one there in the middle of an impromptu photoshoot. It lessens the embarrassment. Somewhat. Sonia barks out orders to turn her head, tilt her hips, and she wonders how Ruby's pokemon do this every time Ruby takes his camera out. Finally, Sonia gets a picture she's satisfied with and uploads it on Flashgram on her behalf. 

New look, as styled by @queensonia.

To her mortification, the likes come streaming in, just as quickly as one of her victory shots. 

"You’re welcome," Sonia sings.

"I don’t think I'm ever going to get used to this,” Gloria groans, and then mutes her phone. “Thanks Sonia.” 

 They stroll back to the boutiques and have tea - which Gloria fights to pay for. It’s the least she can do. 

"I haven't been to Hammerlocke in a while, I wonder if this Kalosian restaurant I used to visit is still open." Sonia divides her cake into small neat pieces with her fork and then proceeds to stick three of them in her mouth immediately. "We could do dinner there." 

Gloria shifts guiltily and stirs her tea. "I have dinner plans already,” she confesses. 

Sonia raises an eyebrow. "This wouldn't be the mystery person Hop was hinting at the last time?" 

"Um." Gloria is torn - she wants to tell someone and Sonia is perfect, since she knows Raihan too and won't get overly excited by the news. Probably. 

"It's Raihan," she finally admits. "We met during the Opening Ceremony and saw each other a couple of times after." 

Sonia squeaks and claps her hands over her mouth, then seems to remember herself. "I'm happy for you both! Really!” She lowers her hands. "Just- surprised." 

"That I've been in Galar for less than a month and somehow managed to get the attention of the second most sought after bachelor?" Gloria says dryly, thinking of Hop’s reaction from before. 

Sonia waves that away. "You're an amazing trainer, bagging a gym leader isn't going to be a surprise to anyone. I'm more surprised that Raihan finally seems to be moving past Leon." 

Leon again. Gloria feels her chest clench at the thought of him. She still doesn't know whether to be angry or upset and where Raihan even stands with him still. 

Raihan had only promised her he cared. That was all, and nothing more. Not that she knows what more is, or if she even wants that, right now. 

"There isn't anything between us," she says, as though saying it out loud can convince herself. "It's just dinner." 

"Your face doesn't look like you hope it's just dinner though," Sonia teases. 

Gloria slumps onto the cafe table. "Can I help it?” she whines, her voice muffled by her hands."Just look at him." 

Sonia groans. "See, the thing about knowing the two men consistently voted as the sexiest men in Galar since childhood is that when you've grown up seeing all the stupid things they've done, you just can't unsee that anymore. So no, I can’t look at him and understand the appeal."

"I feel like I should know about what stupid things he's done." Maybe it will help. Maybe he will stop being a distraction. Or maybe she'll just fall over him more, like a particularly dumb yamper capable of cute tricks. 

"Nuh uh, what embarrassing shit happens during a Gym Challenge stays a secret there." Sonia theatrically presses a finger to her lips. "Well then! When are you meeting him?" 

“Outside Hammerlocke Gym. In um. About an hour.” 

“Right.” Sonia is all business again. “You are not cycling there and getting yourself sweaty. Just take the bus.” 

It is so wonderful and frightening to be loved, Gloria thinks as she listens to Sonia rattle off her instructions.

 

She takes Sonia’s advice and gets on a bus, rather than the train to outside of Hammerlocke stadium. Nervous, she arrived there almost fifteen minutes early and wants to kick herself. She doesn’t need him to saunter up to her while she paces the street. 

She blinks when she sees a now-familiar curly mop of hair outside of the stadium. Bede. And Rose's sulky assistant, Oleana. What are they doing here? 

Bede hands a bag over to Oleana. He says something about Wishing Stars.  

He's turning and walking towards her and she doesn't want to see him. Just the sight of his back makes her choke up at the memory of their last meeting - she doesn't want to hear his arrogant voice again, let alone speak to him. 

So she does what feels the most sensible thing. 

She runs away. 

It’s not running away, she thinks lamely to herself. It’s… being tactical. 

She turns down a street and runs face-first into someone’s chest. 

“I’m sorry!” she immediately says, rubbing her nose. She takes a step back and oh. It’s Leon. 

“Are you alright?” he asks. 

This was not what she wanted when attempting to run from Bede. 

“Brilliant,” she mutters. 

He’s taken off his cap and is fiddling it in his hands while looking studying the ground, and they might not be four and ten anymore, but some things do not change. 

“Spit it out, Lee,” she sighs. The nickname comes easily to her lips now that they’re in this familiar situation. Usually it would be because Leon would have gotten lost, and would have to, embarrassingly, rely on his young charges to get back home. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. She blinks. 

“What for?”

He huffs, and truly he looks terrible. She wonders how much concealer he has packed under his eyes. “Everything. You’re right. I shouldn’t have blamed you. I should have taken better care of Victor and Hop. I shouldn’t have allowed them by themselves. I should have taken the train with them - or waited until they were older to endorse them - “

It is the apology she wanted. And at the same time, it isn’t. 

“You don’t - “ Her words, why can’t her mouth form the words? “You can’t just apologise for that and expect it all to be alright. Do you not even understand? The damage that’s been done to me? To Hop?” 

“I wasn’t lying when I said I did everything to protect you all.” 

“But you still won’t tell us what happened?” Her voice cracks and all of her anger seems to leak out of her. She is so, so tired. 

“I thought the world of you,” she says. She won’t cry. Not in front of him. Not again. “Even before you were Champion. But I never realised how selfish you were. I just want to know what happened to my brother.” 

 

If there is anything Leon knows about, it is sacrifice. 

Sacrifice, contrary to those Unova superhero movies, is not just one enormous decision. It is many tiny ones made one after another, and having to live with them every day.  

Not calling his mother. Not visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Not replying Sonia's texts, or even showing up for Professor Magnolia's funeral. Pebbles, piling up one after another until they weigh as heavy as boulders. 

But then, when you've walked amongst the dirt amongst Galar, seen corruption spill out from tailored suits and silk dresses - when you know that your hands are caked in so much filth and blood you don't want to stain anyone else.

He's kept his family away from this.  

He never got to see his brother grow up.

So he is, understandably, furious when Gloria says that he is selfish. As though he doesn’t know anything about hardship. About losing everything important to him. 

"Do you think it's as easy as that?" He's aware they're out in public. Close to the Hammerlocke gym and the power plant too. Rose isn't scheduled to visit but he could always drop by unannounced. Raihan could see them. Anyone could take a photo of the Champion and the new upstart trainer bickering on the street and put it on the Internet. 

He should keep a smile on his face - a Champion smile, a voice says, sounding much like Rose trying to wrangle a small boy to fit the image he wants. He shouldn't try to explain himself to her. 

He can't. He's not been so angry... ever. He’s used to locking away any kind of extreme emotion, putting on a public face. Now all he wants to do is take Gloria and shake her. 

How dare she. 

She's still asking her barbed questions, her arms crossed as she faces him. Her eyes are wet and he feels terrible but his anger is greater than his guilt. 

"What happened that night? When you found Hop in the Watchtower?" 

"Who told you that?

He knows though. He’s only ever told that story to one person. 

"Raihan," he breathes. That foolish man. 

But Leon is the bigger idiot. He was the one who gave him the key to that door. 

“Don’t you understand what you’ve done?” he demands, heart pounding. “You’ve just put him, put yourself in danger - “

He told me, without my asking! We’re adults Leon, even if you don’t treat the people around you like one.” 

“Do you think I keep them without reason? You’re walking a dangerous path Gloria, but you don’t get to drag anyone down with you! Leave Hop out of it, leave Raihan - "

“Hey.” And it’s the gym leader himself, teleported out of nowhere, sliding an arm over Leon's shoulder. “Everything alright?” 

He looks at Gloria properly now - light makeup, a new haircut, and she’s blushing as she looks at Raihan. And Raihan is looking back at her, a small secretive smile completely unlike his usual one, and his eyes are softened and he - oh. Oh no.

“Wonderful,” Leon says, shrugging off Raihan’s arm before the other man can notice him shake. “Now if you’ll excuse me - I need to head back to Wyndon.” 

He sprints in the direction of the Corvicab point at the gym - even he can’t get lost at this distance. Even he’s not that hopeless.

Except that he is. 

He’d always known that there was a good chance Raihan would look at someone else like that one day. He’d thought he would cry, drink a lot of wine, maybe run a few extra miles every day for a month until it all got burned out of him. 

He didn’t expect to be angry. It's a beast in his chest, thumping against his bones, demanding to be let out. 

If he thought he wanted to hurt Gloria before, it's nothing on what he feels now. 

As he climbs into the cab, he realises then that Raihan is just one more thing he’s sacrificed on the altar that is the Champion. 

 

Chapter Text

Raihan doesn't expect to see Leon and Gloria arguing a street away from his gym. Leon’s got his PR smile plastered on his face, while Gloria, despite the set of her shoulders and straightened back, looks like she’s a second away from crying. 

 “Everything alright?” he asks, sliding an arm on Leon. The Champion’s shoulders are a wire stretched tight, shaking ever so slightly the effort of it.  

Gloria smiles up at him, a small one that at least seems a step away from tears. She looks almost shy. He's never seen her wear lipstick before. 

“Wonderful,” Leon replies. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head back to Wyndon.“ He shakes Raihan's arm off and waves absently. Raihan braces himself for the usual sledgehammer hurt to come at the rejection but oddly enough, he's fine. 

Raihan glances to make sure that the Champion is running in the right direction, then turns back to Gloria.  

"Hey," she says, tugging at her hair. It's shorter than it was this morning. Mew, she's adorable. 

"Hi," he replies, only a half-second late. "What was that about?" 

Her eyes are wet and he looks away as she wipes at them. It seems the kindest thing to do. "I know he's your best friend and he was a pseudo big brother to me, but Leon can be an ass." 

"I'm all too familiar with him stealing the last pizza slice, but somehow I don't think that's what you mean." 

She chokes an approximation of a laugh. “It was a bit more personal than that.”

“Am I going to hear this story any time today?”

She sighs. “Maybe not today.” 

He knows not to push, and it's not an outright no at least. "Okay.” She doesn’t flinch when he takes her hand, and he counts that as a step forward.

She rubs at her eye and he pretends not to notice again. “Where are we headed to?”

“Well, Hammerlocke Gym first.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Really?”

“You’ll see.” 

The staff have already left, and the Macro Cosmos people have finished their inspection of the power plant, so no one sees them as he takes her through the castle’s winding corridors to the dragon sanctuary. 

Gloria gasps out loud when he pushes the door to the sanctuary open. He’s a little proud of that - the girl is always so put together. But then, the sanctuary is twice as large as the gym’s stadium, and filled with dragons. If that didn’t impress her he isn’t sure what would. 

She takes a step forward, then another one, her mouth falling open and her hands reaching out, as though itching to touch.

“Careful,” he warns. “None of them are completely wild, but they’re still feral.” 

“I’ve never seen so many dragons before together," she breathes. "How do you make sure they don’t end up fighting?” 

“Most of them are too injured to fight when they come in so they get used to each other’s presence as they heal. It helps that my goodra is basically a fussy mother and tries to baby all of them.” 

A noibat, one from the latest batch of eggs, flaps its way to them. “Hello there,” she says, reaching out a hand - fingers tucked in and with her knuckles out for it to smell. The noibat chatters and rubs itself against her hand. She's smiling broadly now, no sign of the earlier tears, letting the noibat nuzzle against her arm and then her cheek as she scratches its head, carefully avoiding its ears. 

He’s fighting hard to not take his rotom out and snap a photo because this is an image he wants to keep forever. 

Then the kommo-o charges up in front of them and roars, clattering its tail loudly. The noibat squeaks and is gone.

Raihan already has his hand on his flygon's ball and is slowly inching towards Gloria to stand in front of her. "Don't move," he warns before he remembers who he's speaking to. 

Gloria hasn't even flinched. She drops her head to avoid eye contact - textbook de-escalation technique. Her breathing is soft, even, and he realises is slowly syncing with the kommo-o's own pants.  

And like with the noibat, she reaches a hand out for the dragon to sniff. 

The kommo-o does not take her eyes off Gloria as she bends to sniff. Gloria remains stone still. There is a long, long moment where he forgets to breathe. 

Then the kommo-o licks Gloria's hand like a yamper. 

He remembers to inhale then, and she smiles up at the dragon. He can see how she's holding back a laugh. 

She reaches out to scratch at a spot behind the ears, and between the hard scales, her other hand reaching for a spot underneath the kommo-o's chin. The kommo-o’s tongue lolls out at its mouth at that - and yes, its resemblance to an overgrown yamper is uncanny now. 

“Where are they all from?” 

“Sometimes we find them injured in the Wild Area and we rehome them. Or we find illegal breeders. Some of them here are bred for trainers - most Day Cares just aren’t equipped to handle dragon breeding.” 

It is an odd moment, watching Gloria wander around the pokemon while a part of him worries. They rarely let strangers in here because so few people are unused to actually handling dragons. 

One never quite tames a dragon. Only a true dragon trainer understands this. The dragon only deigns to loan its power but can always leave the moment it feels encaged. So many dragon types are noted to have foul tempers in various pokedexes - and yet, Raihan has rarely ever felt threatened when observing them from a distance in the Lake of Outrage. 

There are a couple of scares. An overexcited fraxure runs up to Gloria and almost shoves its tusks into her eye as it whips its head but she moves out of the way quickly enough. A tyranitar almost knocks her down in as it sniffs at her.

Then a zweilous attempts to take a bite out of a sleeping appletun, and Gloria moves to block the zweilous from chomping down before he can, a hand pressed up under each of the zweilous’ chins. 

“No,” she snaps. 

He can feel a heart attack incoming when he realises she’s staring down the bad-tempered dragon. It’s blind, sure but it can definitely sense her attempt at intimidating it.

The zweilous is one of the ones they had picked up from an illegal breeder. He's joined the police on raids before, but this one had been particularly awful. A hut tucked away between Spikemuth and Hammerlocke. Hundreds of pokemon crammed together in cages and covered in their own filth and shit, bred over and over again for the ideal ability and egg move sets. The zweilous had been found in a cage covered in festering wounds and surrounded by half-chewed deino corpses.  

They’d needed to isolate the zweilous from all other pokemon for months, and then slowly reintroduced it to the company of other pokemon. First his goodra, since the pokemon had a strong enough defence to tank a dragon claw or two, and remained his most patient pokemon. The purple dragon fussed over the zweilous for days, feeding him and constantly chattering before the zweilous let him close. Then gigalith, and flygon. They’d only just put the zweilous in the enclosure the last week.   

She doesn’t break her stare when she tucks her hands into her pocket and slowly pulls out berries, slowly dividing them in two between her hands. She holds them up to the zweilous’ heads to eat. 

The zweilous finally stops glaring – as much as it can glare anyway, without eyes – to munch on the berries. Raihan feels his heart restart when Gloria finally walks away from the pokemon. The appletun hasn't even stirred from his sleep. 

He thinks that's the last of it. Then the zweilous actually stands in front of the exit to stop them when they try to leave. 

“I think he's grown attached to you now,” he teases.

“You would think it would be the appletun would be the one who wanted me.” 

She sucks in a breath and eyes the zweilous, greedy and hesitant at the same time. That’s when he knows he’s making the right decision. 

“How long did you raise your salamence for?” he asks anyway because procedures exist for a reason. 

She’s stroking both zweilous heads with equal amounts of attention, and they’re melting under her touch instead of biting her fingers off. He's almost jealous. It'd taken the zweilous weeks of treats and coaxing before it warmed up to him. 

“He was a shelgon when I caught him rolling into my camp three years ago. As a salamence - six months, before I came here” 

“But you've trained other dragons before right? How’s Seriyu doing?”

At that, she blinks and pauses in her head-scratching. “We both know gyrados aren’t real dragons even though they look like one, and have the temper - “ 

He laughs at that. She passes. “Perfect. I can’t think of a better trainer for the zweilous to go to.”

She turns to face him, mouth agape. 

"Really?" 

"Uh huh." 

"You do realise that that doesn't mean I'll go easy on you when I challenge your gym right?" 

"Of course." 

She turns back to the zweilous, whose heads are whining simultaneously at the lack of scratches. “They’ll have to agree too," she says and there's a weird swelling in his chest as he watches her. She reaches into her bag for an ultraball, presenting it to the pokemon. Slow, cautious movements. 

She whispers something to the zweilous, too soft for him to hear. The left zweilous head nudges at the ultraball, and the pokemon dissolves into red light. 

Gloria turns to him, clutching the ultraball to her chest, her eyes bright. 

He thinks he might just be in love. 

 

They head out the back of the gym, and she stares at him when he indicates the brick wall. 

"Really?" 

"I'll boost you up," he says, grinning. 

She still looks doubtful as he hoists her up the wall, but drops neatly to the other side. He follows after and unlocks the backdoor to his home with a flourish. 

"You're ridiculous," she says, but she's giggling as she does, so he takes it as a victory. 

She follows him into the kitchen, where he takes a cold roasted unfezant from the fridge and sticks it in a pan to steam. 

"Can I help?" She's already washing her hands at the sink and rolling her sleeves up. 

"Can you cook?" he asks, teasing, then hands her a vegetable knife before she can protest. He pulls out vegetables from the fridge and rinses them, and lets her do the chopping while he fiddles with the oven. 

She's handy with a knife, but he supposes that should be expected. He sprinkles the vegetable chunks liberally with oil, salt, and paprika before sticking them in the oven. 

She's still distracted, he can tell, though whether about whatever had happened earlier with Leon or not he isn't sure. He talks instead to fill the silence - telling her about the applins that had hatched the week before and will likely be rehomed in Turffield, the axew that had almost gnawed off one of his trainer's arms earlier in the day.  

Then the oven dings and he's setting everything on the table. He's outdone himself if he says so. His rotom moves to take photos of the spread, careful to make sure that Gloria isn't in the photo and that only one serving is captured. 

"Husband material and a heartthrob influencer - however will the public handle itself," she teases. "Are you done? I want to taste this." 

He tucks his phone away, slightly embarrassed. He’s never embarrassed about his social media presence but he is with her. It doesn’t make sense. "Go ahead." 

She digs in with gusto, chews, and then there's a moan that goes right down to his bones.  

"Good?" 

She's smiling, her eyes closed as she swallows. "I would be happy eating this every day."

"Well." Don't say anything creepy, don't say anything creepy - "I don't know about every day, but I'd be happy to cook you breakfast if you stayed over." 

She blinks and the softness of the moment is gone. He can almost see her slamming doors closed, shuttering the world out. 

"I suppose we need to have a talk about boundaries first,” he says slowly.

"Yes." 

She takes a long drink of water and is very carefully not looking at him. He watches her cheeks get steadily pinker, as she chews on whatever it is she's thinking about. 

He raises baby dragons. He’s patient. He can wait this out.

"The shirtless photos need to stop," she mumbles. 

"Oh! Of course." That one is easy. He gnaws at his lip, and - ah fuck it he'll just ask. "Do you not like them?" 

"I do!" She's still avoiding eye contact, shifting restlessly in her seat. "Too much."

"Then I don't understand." He cups the side of her cheek and she immediately leads into his touch, closing her eyes, and fuck does that do things to his insides. "What the problem is?" 

She is still flushed, fevered. Her eyes are squeezed tightly shut as she speaks. "I still haven't beaten you. I don't - I don't want anyone to say that my victory against yours was given in any way." 

He nods. That makes sense. 

"But do you want me though?" He's confident enough about his own attractiveness that he thinks she does. But thinking is not the same as knowing

Gloria ducks her head, opens and closes her mouth a few times. Her face is almost the same colour as a tamato berry when she finally speaks. 

"I had a crush on you. When I was fourteen and you'd just taken over the Hammerlocke gym."

"Ah." He'd braced himself for a simple No. 

"I thought you were just the coolest - and I'd been following your battles against Leon in the Gym Challenge before of course. So this is a bit weird." She smiles, a little sheepish, and tugs at her hair as she turns her head, moving away from his hand. "You don't end up in bed with your childhood celebrity crush, you know? You don't expect anything to happen. And when you do, you expect it to be a groupie kind of thing - and to be honest, when we hooked up in Motostoke - " 

He feels his cheeks hear up at the memory. How he'd hit on her, hoping to use her really, but rationalising that it would be okay since she got the bragging rights sleeping with him. How little he'd known then. 

"I said that yes because I thought sleeping with you would just get Leon pissed." 

"Ah," he says again.  

"It was infantile of me, of course. But I knew you were using me as a distraction, so I thought it would be okay to do the same. And I thought I wouldn't see you again after that so it wouldn't be like we owed each other anything." 

She tucks her hair behind her ear, her cheeks very red now. "And then it didn't feel like just a hookup. And then you took that photo - " He winces, yes how he regrets that one. "And then Turffield, and Motostoke, and all your messages and I'm really grateful, I am. And yes, now I'm an adult and still think you're stupidly attractive." 

"Would have been nice if you hadn't included the adverb there," he says, the snark instinctive. 

"It's true though." The half-lidded gaze she gives him is torture, pure torture. She licks her lips, still studiously not looking at him. "So that's me. And rationally, I know you care. You've put in a ridiculous amount of time to care for me, and you've not tried to get into my pants since. Well. The beginning. So there's something there." 

I do care. He does. More than he wants to get into her pants which is, right now, a lot. He doesn't want to examine how much, not yet. He's honest enough to know that he's afraid to.

“It doesn’t help as well, that I’m essentially a stranger in Galar. Sure, I have Hop, and Sonia, but I don’t know how much of my feelings – ” his breath catches a little at that. “Whatever attachment I have is because you’re one of the few support figures I have here.”

She swallows and clenches her hands into fists, very studiously not looking at him. 

"Then there's your feelings for Leon."

The breath is knocked out of him like he's been headbutted by a kommo-o. 

"What I feel for Leon and what I feel for you are completely different things." The words almost feel like they're coming out if someone else's mouth. It doesn't reduce the truth of it. 

"I decided a while ago that I was going to stop pining over him. It wasn't worth it." He can't remember the last time he'd thought of Leon that way. Maybe in Motostoke? The same day he'd met Gloria. He cares about Leon still, bugs him about eating his meals, snarks at him about getting lost, but he's not thought about bending Leon over his kitchen table since. 

He's never going to not care. But this - less pining, fewer temper tantrums after a match, fewer unconscious daydreams about purple hair and golden eyes while in the shower  - is progress.

Her voice is very soft. "I can't be his replacement." 

He takes her hand and she doesn't pull away. "You aren't." 

The room is so quiet he hears her exhale. "Okay." 

"Okay?"

"Okay, I believe you." She snorts, the derisive sound breaking all softness in the room. "You're a really bad liar anyway." 

He grins. Really, he shouldn't expect anything different. 

"Will you stay the night?" 

She hesitates. "We aren't having sex," she says, making him wish again that they'd first met in different circumstances. 

"I have a spare room." 

"I have to do my laundry." 

"You can use my machine." 

"What's for breakfast?" 

"I was thinking I'd do crepes." 

The smile she gives him is heartbreakingly lovely. "Then yes, I'm staying." Then she takes his hand - it is tiny next to his, his palm alone almost dwarfing her whole hand - and presses a kiss to his knuckles. Arceus, he's only so strong. 

"Gloria?" 

"Mm?" Her breath ghosts against his skin, and 

"May I kiss you? Please?" 

She presses his palm against her cheek again, and her skin is so warm under his. 

"Well you said may instead of can so I suppose you've been good enough." Her voice is teasing but he doesn't miss the flush spreading along her cheeks and neck. 

He bends down to press his lips against hers - soft, slow, his brain reminds him. Then she makes a strangled noise and wraps her around his neck, pressing herself against him, and his self-control short circuits, especially when her hands fist into his shirt and pull him closer. 

It’s not the first time they’ve kissed, or touched, but it may as well be. It’s been almost a month now, and he’s only gotten more enamoured with her since – he is, he’s honest enough to know he is. She’s not Leon. He still wants to care for her, and cook for her, and he’s really, really looking forward to battling her when she’s ready.

Finally, Gloria pulls away. 

"That was - " she struggles to find words. "Nice." 

"Yes," he says. There are a lot of other adjectives he could use, but he's fine, settling with nice right now. 

"That's not going to happen again as well," she says, flushing. Her hands are twisting against her clothes. 

Right. Boundaries. 

"I'll just wait for you to smash through the other gym leaders then, with bated breath." 

"For me to get to Hammerlocke to destroy you?" she smiles, and really, he's not sure how to give a dignified response to that. Her eyes are wide when she looks at him. "Rai?" 

"Yeah?" 

She's touching her lips, still wide-eyed and infinitely kissable. "Thank you." 

He leaves her in the guestroom for Leon and Piers, which he'd cleaned days ago when she said she was going to drop by. He spends the entire night trying to not replay how exactly her lips had felt against his. 

 

In the morning he asks her for her favourite berries. 

"Cheri," she says and laughs when his face falls. "I'm out." 

"I have some in my bag. Go ahead and use them." 

He's digging through one of the many compartments looking for berries when his hand closes around the spherical object.

It's about the same size as a pokeball, but warmer somehow, a polished smoothness that is more like wood than steel. 

He pulls out the pink apricorn ball from the bag. 

"Gloria?" 

"Mm?" 

She steps into the kitchen with damp hair, wearing only the oversized shirt he'd lent her to sleep in. He has to remember how to work his mouth again - maybe it was a mistake loaning her his old gym uniform, especially after her display last night. 

"Sorry, I couldn't find the berries compartment," he finally manages. 

"It's fine." She gently plucks the apricorn ball from his hands and tucks it back into the bag, then rummages a little before handing him a box stuffed with berries. He tries to discern from her body language - she doesn't seem too upset somehow. 

"I've never seen an apricorn ball before." He washes, slices the cheri berries to remove their pits and lines the pan with them. "Where'd you get it from?" 

She's smiling when he turns around, wistful. "It was a present from Ruby, when he went back to Johto to visit his family." 

His insides twist up at that. Ruby was always an enigmatic figure in gossip rags - a pokemon coordinator yes, but there were always conflicting stories on how strong a trainer he really was. Some say that he was incapable of battling, others claim that he could easily be Hoenn Champion, if he really tried. 

He keeps his voice casual when he asks "I've never figured out - are Ruby and Professor Birch dating or not?" 

She giggles. "Took years for them to figure it out too. Ruby's incredibly smart in a lot of ways, but when it comes to feelings - Sapphire confessed to him once and he pretended he had memory loss so he didn't have to deal with it." 

That is… dramatic. "How long did he fake that for?" 

"About five years before she figured it out. She was furious for months after. That was around the time I got an internship with her. We spent a lot of time camping away from human civilization." 

She has a sly smile on her face that he loves and is afraid of. 

"Are you jealous?" 

"No." 

"Mmm. Because the great Raihan should never get jealous." 

"Damn right." 

"Not of my mentor's fiancee, or of my best friend." She laughs. "Hop told me about how he almost took his head off when he called." 

He tries to remember when he had ever ever displayed any kind of jealousy with Baby Leon. "I was completely polite." 

"I'm sure you were."

He tries to change the subject. "Will you use the apricorn ball then?" 

"Maybe. For the right pokemon." She props her chin on the table. "Also, I was led to believe that I would be getting crepes." 

She moans into her first bite of the crepe and really, she has got to be teasing him.  

"If the gym leader thing ever fails to work out," she says around a mouthful of cream and crepe. "You could be a cook. I promise I'll advertise it every day as Champion." 

"I love how you're so certain you'll be winning this year." 

"I'd be hurt if you haven't put your life's savings on my winning," she jokes, twirling her hair. She stabs a cheri berry and chews, and he doesn't watch her as she does because he isn't a creep. 

"Rai?" 

"Mm?" 

"I'm really not in the right headspace for anything now - and I've still got a Gym Challenge to complete. But - " She's blushing now, tugging at her hair again but she keeps her eyes on him. "To be very clear, you'd be my first option." 

He's fighting the urge to kiss her so he tries to focus on what she's saying. "First option? Just who else is on that list?" 

Her grin is pure evil now, no more shy blushing maiden. "I don't know, Milo looks like a big strong man - " 

"I'll show you a big strong man," he grumbles, turning back to the stove to wipe it down, only so he had something to do with his hands. He's not going to pick her up or kiss her because boundaries Raihan, she set them up for a reason. 

But she's hopped off her seat and is now in his space again, tugging his tie so he bends down to meet her mouth. She tastes like cheri berries and cream.

Before she leaves, he shoves a spare pair of gloves - part of a spare Dragon Gym uniform he'd unearthed from his gym's supplies when he realised he was going to be sleeping with Gloria under the same roof and needed a walk. The dark blue is subtle enough, and goes better with her clothes anyway. He can't help but feel something in his chest purr with satisfaction - a flygon, maybe - when she tugs them on. She’s blushing, and he shoves his hands in the pocket of his hoodie so he doesn’t accidentally reach for her again, and something gapes in his chest as she leaves.

It feels like something completely different from Leon though, especially when she stops and turns to wave at him before turning to go again.

 

Raihan hears the knock just as he’s about to turn in. He'd survived the day somehow, fuelled by copious amounts of coffee and the memory of Gloria playing with the various dragons in the sanctuary. 

He's about to ignore it, then they come again, more insistent. If it was an emergency, his trainers would have called first. So of course he’s surprised when he sees Leon standing at his door.

It’s not Leon’s first time over of course, they’ve hung out in his apartment plenty of times. Leon's also stayed over - sometimes in the guest room, or sometimes when they fall asleep in the couch - before. But this is the first time he's barged over in the middle of the night. 

His first thought is that something’s wrong.

“I know it’s late,” Leon says, licking his lips and fiddling with his cap. “But can I come in, please?” 

Raihan has the kettle on and grabs some tea bags - herbal tea, neither of them needs the caffeine now. He waits for Leon to speak first, already wide awake. He's known as brash and impatient, but for Leon, he can wait. 

He can’t help but think about how he’d waited for Gloria the night before.

“Remember what I said before about Gloria being dangerous?” 

Raihan starts. He’d assumed it was going to be something about Leon, maybe Rose scheduling yet another meeting on his already overflowing plate. Maybe even his brother. 

“Yeah,” he says, taking a sip of his tea as he tries to read Leon’s face. He’d thought then Leon had meant her temper, but now. Now he knows. 

“I meant it,” Leon says, in the same insistent tone he uses when he wants the last pizza slice. Raihan always gives it to him, despite the complaints. “It was a mistake, I shouldn't have given you her number. You need to stop talking to her." 

Yes, is his first instinct. Of course he'd do what Leon asks. They are friends and rivals and he's been in love with Leon for as long as he's known him but Gloria isn’t the last pizza slice to be given up.

Instead, he frowns. "Why are you telling me this?” 

Leon is silent instead, his face scrunched as though he’s afraid to look at Raihan in the eye. 

"Lee." He doesn't miss Leon's flinch. How did we end up like this? "I understand it's important. What I want to know is why." 

Leon's face scrunches up as he shakes his head. "I can't tell you. You just have to trust me." 

"You're really not giving me much to work on." 

Leon huffs a long slow breath and opens his eyes. Then he reaches over and takes Raihan's hands. 

Raihan immediately stops breathing. 

"Please." Leon's voice is quiet, but no less intense as when he is in the heat of a battle. "Do it for me, Rai." 

"I - " 

And then Leon presses Raihan’s hands to his mouth.

"Please." Raihan's stomach twists at the image – it’s too reminiscent of what Gloria did, sitting at his dining table. Leon's beard scratches pleasantly against his hands, his voice low, insistent. It's everything he's dreamed of, and not.

"You've known?" He knows he's not been subtle, not really, but he's never quite made a move on Leon - throwing his arm over his shoulders post-battle doesn't count - and really, Leon was always such an airhead about everything, he just assumed, he never noticed - 

"Yes." Leon looks like he's near tears now. Raihan has never ever seen him cry. Rage yes, lose his temper, or throw tantrums about how tired he is and then pass out on his couch. But never cry. 

"And you never said anything?" 

"I couldn't - I wanted to, but I was afraid that - " Leon lets go of his hands and reaches for him again, this time to grasp the sides of his face and bring him down. Raihan lets him. 

"I know Gloria's pretty," Leon mumbled. "And she’s clever, and she's stubborn and she's strong but - Rai. I've always been here." 

And Raihan's brain just stops working. It's so much like what he's thought about, Leon's eyes half-lidded and he's licking his lips as he leans in - 

"Why are you saying this now?" 

Leon stops. 

"I don't want to lose you," he says quietly. "Forget Gloria. I'll talk to Rose, I'll beg him so we can go public, it’ll be okay - "

Raihan’s not a stupid man but even this is moving too fast for him. “Rose? What does Rose have to - Oh,” he realises and it’s all so awful, so clear he doesn’t know how he didn’t put it together before. 

"You've always been wonderful, Rai and I thought - I never - I always wanted you - “ 

“So why now?” Raihan hears himself ask. Voice calm, even, despite all the fractures he can feel cracking and collapsing under his skin.  

Leon’s hands fist into his shirt as he bows his head, slumping his shoulders. Raihan can't think of a time when Leon ever had trouble looking him in the eye. “I don’t want you to get dragged down with her." 

"How much do you know?" he hears himself asking. "About whatever is going on?" 

"Enough to know that she's trouble." 

Raihan shakes his head. The Leon he knows would throw himself headfirst into danger, if it means that it would help someone else. It's infuriating sometimes, how reckless he can be - I heard someone calling in that sandstorm! and he’ll take off after that voice to find a trainer who’d twisted their ankle, about to get mowed down by a gigalith - but there it is. It’s who Leon is and is why Raihan loves him. 

He isn't sure he knows who is sitting next to him on the couch.  

Raihan stands up so quickly Leon falls into the couch with a soft thump. "You’re just trying to manipulate me." 

“Rai, I - "

There's a pit in his stomach, yawning wide. A voice screaming at him that he's doing this wrong, that this has been what he's wanted. That surely he isn't going to waste over a decade of pining, and all for a girl he's known for a month.

He firmly tells that voice to shut up. "Get out." 

"I love you," Leon says, and Raihan's dreamt of this for years but he's never thought that he would be doing anything but revel in the moment. "That part isn't a lie." He gets up anyway, gathers his cloak and leaves. 

Raihan thinks of how his whole life revolves around Leon. Checking whenever the Champion adds another dragon to his roster. Changing up his own team and their move set for the best counter. 

He wonders when was the last time he did something that wasn't because of Leon. His friendship with Piers, maybe - though he's very aware that he's been a shit friend there. Gloria. But he'd started that first because he'd wanted to stop thinking of Leon, so how much of it actually counts? 

How long has he been in this fog? 

Who is he, beyond his obsession with Leon? 

He covers his face with his hands. "Fuck." 

 

Raihan and Leon might have done their Gym Challenge together and known each other longer, but in the few years, Piers and Raihan have developed an odd sort of friendship. It started with Piers asking Raihan if the gym leader would give his sister some pointers on doubles, and then to Friday night drinks at dive bars in Spikemuth where both gym leaders will be left alone, then to casual hook ups in alleyways behind bars, and then they sometimes make breakfast for each other. There's an odd sort of fondness between them, brought together by the two of them having toxic enough levels of self-loathing neither of them will really care to examine. 

It's why Piers doesn't just slam the door at his face when Raihan knocks on his door at four in the morning - finehe's awake anyway but the reason why sleeps at dawn is so that he can do his songwriting in peace.  

“What would you do,” Raihan asks Piers, licking his lips and looking more like a man on the verge of a breakdown than the heartthrob social media star the world was used to seeing. “If you finally got what you wanted more than anything in the world - but then realised you didn’t want it anymore?” 

Piers sighs, and pulls the girafang of a man down for a hug. “This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with Leon and that gym challenger you have an eye on, would it?” 

Raihan at least looks sheepish. “Am I that obvious?” 

“I’ll just say that you’re so slow it’s easy enough to predict what you’re going to do five steps ahead.” He hauls the big lug through the door and shuts it. "Anyone could have seen this coming, once you told Milo on the gym leaders chat that you wanted to know about the new trainer. Some battle strategist you are." 

Raihan groans and slumps on the couch. 

“So.” Piers asks, propping his hands on his chin. He's setting aside any kind of feelings he has towards Leon - like the urge to give him a good ol' Spikemuth brawl. He will be a good friend. "Why have you darkened my door today?"

"Leon said he loves me." 

Piers blinks. "Well, about bloody time."

"He told me that he'd talk to Rose about - well I guess our image. And publicity." 

"And the reason why you're not currently in bed with the man you've been in love with for some sixteen odd years?" 

Raihan swallows, and Piers thinks about the teenager who had just inherited the oldest gym. "He told me to stay away from Gloria. He was basically confessing to me so I would break off everything with her." 

"Gloria being - oh, the gym challenger." He needs to keep up with the gossip better, but he really can't be arsed most of the time. "I take it that went well."

Raihan buries his face in his hands. "I told him to get out." 

"Huh." On one hand, Piers is concerned, the way a good friend should be. On the other, he's inordinately proud of his friend for finally showing some level of gumption against the Champion. He's put up with his pining for far too long. 

"So. What do you like about this girl?" 

Raihan huffs out a breath. "What's there not to like? Alright, she can do some massively stupid shit sometimes, and I half want to strangle her and half want to send my gym leaders to look after her like you've done with Marnie - but she's so smart and strong and you should see how good she is with dragons - "

Arceus, he's not seen Raihan so worked up over anyone since well. Leon. Piers frowns, scratching the side of his head. "This is the gym challenger who's been laggin' behind everyone in the roster?" 

Raihan's immediately on the defensive. "She's building a whole team from scratch, Piers! Within one season! I don’t know anyone else who's done that - don't give me that look, Marnie's been training her team for years now." He pauses, and Piers does not like the look in his eyes. It's the one he gets when he insists that they watch replays of his matches with Leon over and over. "Holy Moltres - have you seen any of her gym battles before?" 

"No, and I really don't want to right now." 

"She smacked down Nessa's Championship drednaw with a thawckey. Without dynamaxing." 

Alright, that is impressive but he's not going to fuel Raihan's fanboy tendencies any further. Someone has to be sensible here.

"So you clearly like this girl." 

He sees a whole range of emotions flit through Raihan's face - the same ones that he has when Raihan grudgingly admits that he likes Leon. Piers could write a whole album of songs with that range of emotions. He has. 

How the both of them have been able to keep up their sex arrangement is beyond him. Raihan is not a man who does casual. 

"Yeah. I do." 

"Does she like you back?" 

He doesn't miss Raihan's wince. "I think so. I don't want to be presumptuous. She said she wasn't in any headspace to think about anything until she was done with the Challenge." 

Piers is starting to like this girl more. At least she seems sensible and clear-headed, not at all like the kind of person who would bang on a friend's door in the middle of the night. 

"She also said I would be her first choice if she did pick someone," Raihan mumbles. 

Piers cannot understand how there is a problem, but he knows better than to say so. 

"Are you going to wait for her then?" he asks instead. 

"Yes. It's only another month before the end of the Championships anyway." 

"Okay. Then you know what to do." 

Raihan groans and flops against the sofa. "What if she doesn't like me back, Piers?" 

He's not going to slap Raihan. He's not. "I've gone through the last few years listening to this whingein' when you were up in arms about Leon - and look how that turned out. He liked you back, didn't he?" 

"Yes but - " Raihan bites back a response, and seems to be turning over his answer in his head. "It felt like - do any of us really know Leon?"

"What do you mean? Aren't you his best friend?" 

Raihan shrugs. "Sure, I see him more than any of you. But he kept saying he couldn't tell me - there's something that he's hiding." 

"He works for the Chairman. He's definitely hiding all sorts of shady things." 

Raihan huffs, no unable to argue with that. 

Piers has never liked Leon. It's stupid, but it's as though the Champion dug his hooks into Raihan when they were all children and never let go.

He remembers Raihan as a ten-year-old, stumbling in the Spikemuth streets. He was tiny, next to his flygon. He'd looked like the world would eat him alive. 

It hasn't, but and he knows that it won't. Raihan is stronger than that. That doesn't mean Piers likes seeing him hurt. 

"So what are you going to do now?" 

"Wait, I suppose. Nothing to it." Raihan slumps against the couch and covers his face with his hands. "It's fine. Fine.” 

Piers rolls his eyes and tosses him a blanket. “You’re staying over tonight, yeah?”

“If it’s okay.” 

“Just don’t mind my singing then.” 

“You know I like your singing.” 

Raihan kicks off his shoes while Piers opens out the sofa. It’s a big wide sofa bed, with an ottoman at the end that Piers had picked up from the streets and lugged into his apartment, just so Raihan’s feet don’t end up hanging off the couch. 

“Sleep then,” he says. It’s weirdly tender, to tuck the other man in, but it feels right anyway. “I’ll wake you in the morning.” 

He glances at the sheets of music he’d been working on before Raihan had knocked on his door and picks up his guitar. Strums a few chords and hums as the living room fills with soft snoring. 

Chapter Text

"Your handlers say you left your rooms, last night." 

"Yes sir." 

"Where did you go?" 

"For a walk. I couldn’t sleep." 

"A walk in Hammerlocke?" 

"..." 

"Answer me." 

"... yes, sir." 

"You went to Raihan. In the middle of the night."

"Yes sir." 

"Flying illegally on a pokemon." 

"I'll pay the fine, sir." 

"No. There will be no record of you breaking the law." 

"Understood, sir." 

"Maybe it's time that you're seen in the public eye with someone. What do you think the public might say about you being in a relationship with Gloria?" 

"... it would be odd, sir. I've known her as a baby." 

"It might be time that the Unbeatable Champion is seen to have a love interest. Her merchandise is selling well. This might boost her popularity." 

"Or notoriety, sir. You know how vicious my fans can be about any talk of love interests. You remember Sonia, sir." 

"At this point, any kind of popularity for her can only be good.”

“Would you care to elaborate on that, sir?”

“No. How about Raihan?" 

"What about him? Sir?" 

"As a potential love interest for our gym challenger, of course. You're a close friend, aren't you? Do you think he would be amenable?" 

"I don't have an opinion. Sir." 

"Would the public like it?" 

"He has his own fan base. They can be protective." 

"Certainly. But a gym leader isn’t as untouchable as the undefeatable Champion. He actually needs to mingle with the people. Hmm. It might work." 

"...Chairman?" 

"Yes?"

"Do you intend to make her the new Champion?" 

"Isn't that up to your skill on the field?" 

"Yes sir. Of course." 

"Do you think she will win?" 

"It's hard to say, sir. She’s been trained by a former Champion and her skill is undeniable. It's a question of whether she will have enough time to build a strong enough team in the next month." 

“Mmm."

“Are you serious, sir? About the love interest part?”

“We’d have to schedule some meetings to ascertain if there’s any convincing chemistry first, I suppose. Test the public ratings. But now that I’ve thought of it, your brother might be a better candidate.”

“…sir?”

“For Gloria’s public love interest. He’s gaining a good fan base as well, and has been seen to attend her matches. He’s displayed good aptitude speaking to the reporters as well.”  

“Yes, sir. He has.” 

“Do you think he’ll reach the finals?”

“It’s unlikely, sir. He may stumble in the later gyms.” 

“He’s doing fine so far.”

“I suspect his heart isn’t in it, sir.” 

“We might have to fix some matches. I asked you to endorse him for years, before this. Why did you choose to do it now?”

“He never showed interest before, sir. Not after his first attempt.” 

"I see. Perhaps we should arrange for Gloria to have an agent. She should be amenable though, the girl seems to understand showmanship." 

"... yes, sir." 

"Do I detect reluctance?" 

"No, sir." 

“Leon, do you wish to stop being Champion?”

“Sir?” 

“If Gloria succeeds in dethroning you, would you be glad to step down?” 

“I’m not sure, sir. It’s all I’ve known.”

“We may find you another job within Macro Cosmos. Keep you close still. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Leon?”

“Yes, Chairman.”

“Good boy. You may go." 

"Thank you, sir." 

Chapter Text

Gloria arrives at Stow-on-Side the morning after leaving Raihan's home covered in dust, dirt, and scrapes. She also arrives packing a rillaboom and corviknight, so she thinks it has been worth it. 

She's decided to name her mimikyu Myrtle. The mimikyu, despite the circumstances she’d found her in, is an oddly happy creature who seems completely unaware of her ability to send terrify others with a brush of her claws. It turns out that she just wants to make friends. Gloria had to spend a good hour trying to stop her from befriending the yamasks and silicobras in the area, and to hone her battle instincts instead. It won’t be a problem on the field, she hopes. 

When she sets up camp for lunch, Myrtle slides into an easy companionship with the rest of her team, chattering with Tempo and Orion as though they have been friends forever. 

The zweilous though, is going to be a handful. She introduced him to individual members of her team over the course of the afternoon - bearing in mind Raihan's instructions on how jumpy he can get around new pokemon. Tempo first, because he's become the de facto leader on her team. Then Hanabi, who he bonded with well enough. Orion however, did not take kindly to his wings being snapped at, even though the zweilous didn’t do much damage. She still hasn't introduced him to Seriyu, unsure how the two will handle each other, given how territorial Seriyu has become since his evolution.

Raihan had warned her that the zweilous won't respond to any other name but “Fluffy”. She wonders if it was the gym leader who had named him, and if he thought he was being funny. 

The first thing she does when arriving in the dusty town is to register herself at the gym, which is filled with disgruntled trainers. She's not the last challenger this time, with many hitting a wall against Bea's team and trying their luck again and again. Most don’t make it past the gym challenge, and for good reason. 

She gets a slot for the night - prime time television, she's told by the receptionist, and repeatedly told how lucky she is and how she'd better clean up properly before the cameras. It’s becoming something of a tradition.  

She can splurge on a nice room now - one that will at least allow some of her pokemon enough space to move while she falls asleep. The trainer hotel is a five minute walk from the Stow-on-Side mural. She stares at the riot of colours for a good minute and decides that she can't understand the appeal.

Then she goes to the market bearing her catch. 

She sells a docile helioptile to a weary-looking father who's looking to get a birthday present for his daughter with stern instructions to get rubber gloves before handing it to the girl. A maractus for a woman who’s looking for a pet now that her children had moved out. 

When she shows up at the gym for her slot, she already has her makeup and hair done and swats aside the backstage stylists that attempt to take it off. Sonia, Raihan and Hop had all assured her she looked fine. 

Not that it really matters given what she will be facing next. 

"Try not to get injured," one of the gym staff says, and then shoves a waiver in her face to sign. She apparently gives up her right to she the League but they promise to treat injuries if any as a result of the gym challenge.

Generous.  

The gym challenge used to be a carnival ride - throw a trainer into a teacup that would spin and make them battle while dizzy - but the novelty of that wore off quickly. The League now thinks that having trainers wrestle pokemon is better entertainment. 

The challenge is that they're stuck in the stadium with a feral pokemon and aren't allowed to release their own team members for five minutes. In that first five minutes the trainers are free to run, or preferably, beat it to a pulp before the cameras. The goal is not to win, but to survive. She bounces on the ball of her feet as the door opens, wondering what they will send. 

And then a stufful, wide-eyed and smiling, clambers out. 

She glances up at the cameras and can almost shake her fists up in anger at them. 

A machop, which she'd been expecting, she can handle. She’d watched Hop’s match, where they sent out a herd of wooloo. The same people who got their underwear bunched watching Milo throwing bales of straw around would have wanted to see that - a farmboy version of their beloved Champion slinging around sheep over his broad shoulders without breaking a sweat. She had to take a shower after reading some of the comments. 

A stufful though. Even if she somehow manages to wrestle it down without being killed in the process, there won't be any respect gained just because of how cute they look.  Even if they are vicious little creatures. 

She doesn’t want to walk away from this fight with broken bones though, even if the healthcare is free. Luckily she had come prepared with poketreats. That is, poketreats that have been stuffed with a low dosage of sleep powder from the maractus she had caught. 

There had been nothing in the League regulations about them. She'd checked the rules thoroughly. 

She reaches into her pocket for them, and a few berries. Crouches down low and holds it out to the stufful. 

It bounds over, sniffing at her hands. 

"Trainer Victoria is choosing not to fight the stufful it seems.” 

She rolls her eyes, but suspects the camera won’t be showing that. Too disrespectful. But she’s not going to be stupid enough to attempt at fighting the stufful, despite the taunt. 

It looks up at her with its large eyes, tail wagging. She keeps her fingers pressed down, making sure to not come in contact with its fur as it leans close to her palm to nibble on a poketreat. 

Two minutes later, her hands are empty. She stills as the stufful presses its nose to her palm. 

The clock in front of her counts down. Two minutes left. 

The stufful presses the side of its body onto the tips of her fingers. She doesn’t move, doesn't even dare breathe, her body tensed and ready to throw herself backwards if it begins to flail at the contact. 

Think calming thoughts, Gloria. 

Victor had always been better with pokemon than her. Had never met one he couldn't tame with a stroke of his hand. Gloria has always relied on appropriate mixture of bribes and dressing downs. 

She breathes slowly, evenly. This is no scarier than facing down a full-grown kommo-o. 

The stufful purrs, and she very tentatively sinks her fingers into its plush fur. 

Ninety seconds. 

Its body relaxes into her touch, instead of tensing the way it would before attacking. She scratches at a spot behind its ear, very slowly brings her other hand up to its nose to sniff, and then scratches under its chin. 

Fifty seconds. 

The stufful goes limp against her hand. She picks it up carefully and cradles it to her chest. 

Thirty seconds. 

It mewls sleepily against her chest and yawns, heart-meltingly adorable. As though it weren’t capable of kicking her ribs in. 

“It seems - instead of fighting with the pokemon, Trainer Victoria has chosen to befriend it?” 

It's something she can easily spin up for the press afterwards. Something about how choosing not to commit violence is a perfectly valid option, and there is no shame in not wanting to have one’s bones broken. Exactly the kind of moral parents would want their children to hear. 

It's what Victor would have done. 

Fourteen-year-old Gloria would have just rolled up her sleeves and come back with broken ribs, lying between her teeth that it didn't hurt. 

Ten seconds. 

A bell goes off. 

She puts the stufful down. It stretches out on the ground, belly splayed wide. 

She’s ushered backstage again, and the pointed to the tunnel that leads to the main stadium. Before she walks out into the light, she straps her goggles onto her head. 

The noise of the crowd is far less startling now. She thinks she sees Sonia’s red hair in the stands and smiles. In the opposite tunnel, the Gym Leader emerges. 

Bea has only been in charge of the gym for a couple of years but is a popular trainer anyway. Gloria likes her, or at least, what she knows of her from the press. The Gym Leader is her age and has taken on her responsibilities with the same seriousness she approaches her own martial arts training. 

“Welcome, Trainer Victoria,” she greets. Gloria nods in return.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Bea continues. “I’m looking forward to testing your resolve.” 

She’s a little startled at the choice of words, though they’re completely in line with the standard gym leader partial trash talk partial inspiring words pre-match pep talk.

Focus. She can't carry any anxiety with her to a match. It'd be like begging the deities for a loss. 

Bea sends pangro first, as Gloria predicted she would. She fields Seriyu, who has taken to roaring loudly every time he emerges from his ball. It works to intimidate the other side well so she keeps encouraging it with belly rubs after his battles. 

From the crowd's noise, this was not an expected move. Likely they thought she would use Seriyu as an ace, sending him out only against Bea's Dynamaxed mah. Which mean that they'll be wondering what she'll be using at the end of the match.  

It's fine. It's exactly as planned. She can make use of the hype. Any good publicity is welcome. 

"Rain dance," she calls, pulling her goggles down and the gyrados obeys.

"Night slash!" Bea shouts. The pangoro moves quickly despite its size, closing the gap between the two pokemon to land a punch against the gyrados' scales. Seriyu looks down at it, lazily moving his tail to wrap around the pangoro. 

The crowd probably expects a move like waterfall or aqua tail. She does it one better. 

"Hurricane." 

With pangro still wrapped in place in his tail, Seriyu leaps into the air and roars, his eyes glowing red. 

The wind picks up and she can barely hear the gym's music amidst its howl. Raindrops fatten until they fall like bullets. The crowd shouts as the rain lashes at them, before the psychic bubbles by the on-hand Mr Mimes ripple into place. 

She can see the pangoro struggle in Seriyu's tail. Seriyu only tightens his grip as he rises to the top of the stadium. 

Gyrados may not be dragons, but there is a reason why people fear them all the same. 

Seriyu lets go. 

The pangoro screams as it falls, buffeted and spun by the winds until it finally crashes to the ground. It does not get back up. 

It was completely worth being drenched for hours as they'd worked to get this move right in the Wild Area.

Bea throws an arm up, acknowledging the loss. The pangoro is recalled and she sends out sirfetch'd. 

The rain continues to lash down in the stadium. The sirfetch'd narrows its eyes as it runs towards Seriyu, a pale streak in the storm. 

"Brutal swing!" Bea shouts from her side of the pitch. 

"Aqua tail!" 

Seriyu's tail moves in a blur and sweeps the sirfetch'd across the length of the field. The smaller pokemon slams against the concrete walls that separate it from the audience. 

It didn't even have a chance to attack. 

Gyrados, rillaboom, corviknight, mimikyu, salazzle, hydregion? She'd have to change things if Fluffy doesn't evolve in time, and salazzles still aren't used much at the competitive level because they lacked the necessary bulk for competitive pokemon. She'd thought that having one would be good for ageislash, but she might need to rethink that. Rillaboom will be useful if she has to go up against Nessa again, and can tank Piers well with his good defence. A fantastic asset against his seismistoad if he chose to use it, or rhyperior. But he has that hellspawn Mr Rime. 

Too many variables. Leon has his core members of his team but changes the ancillary ones too frequently for her to predict. She's just going to have to make sure all her bases are covered. 

She starts, realising Bea is speaking to her. "I'm not giving up yet!" the girl calls from across the pitch. 

Gloria nods, acknowledging the words. Then she recalls Seriyu to his pokeball. The storm dies immediately - the gym suddenly much quieter without the wind or rain lashing out. 

Bea's Championship machamp emerges on the field.

"Let's just destroy everything." The intensity of Bea's face is almost frightening. She recognises it, has seen it on her own face when watching videos of her own battles. 

Gloria throws her ball. 

Myrtle is tiny before the machamp. Smaller still after the impression Seriyu had caused earlier. Gloria thinks she can hear booing from the stand. 

The gigamantaxed machamp glares down at the mimikyu, while Myrtle looks far too pleased at the thought of a new friend, even under her disguise. 

“Myrtle, swords dance!” At least, Gloria thinks, the Mimikyu follows orders on the field. Even if she'd rather cuddle than fight. 

“Max Strike!” 

The attack passes uselessly through the ghost. Gloria looks across the field to Bea, surprised at the gym leader’s error. Maybe she isn't all that familiar with ghost types; mimikyu are uncommon in Galar. 

Bea looks furious when she realises the attack hadn't made contact and sweeps her arm out. “Max Darkness!” Bea calls. “We’re not going down without a fight!” 

Gloria can’t help but smile, noting Bea’s language. She knows she’s lost already.

The lights in the stadium flicker, and then go off as the Gigamantaxed machamp glows eerily. There's a ball that begins gathering in front of the machamp - something that seems to suck out all light near it. 

The void crashes down on Myrtle. Her disguise breaks, but she hops on the spot, barely ruffled by the attack. 

“Play rough,” she calls. She can almost sense the mimikyu’s grin as she leaps towards the machoke and tackles an oversized leg. 

And then the match is over, and the machoke is collapsing and shrinking down to his usual size. Gloria crosses the field to shake Bea's hand. 

"Thank you for the battle," Bea says, putting her hands together and bowing. Gloria copies the action, and they straighten together, then do a more traditional handshake for the camera. 

"It was a good one." 

Bea smiles. It’s a small one, but it transforms her face entirely. 

"You barely broke a sweat," she says. "The Gym Leaders are looking forward to seeing you in the finals. I want to go all out the next time I see you." 

Gloria is suddenly uncomfortably reminded that all the gym leaders are aware of her and Raihan's relationship. She takes the badge offered to her, stammers her thanks. 

In the locker room she almost expects an ambush by the gym leader, but there is none of that. She pulls on her civilian clothes, dabs on her lipstick. Then she squares her shoulders and goes out to speak to the press

 

“You were incredible,” Sonia gushes as they leave the gym together. “Are you ready for the Championships or what?” 

Gyrados, rillaboom, corviknight, mimikyu, salazzle, hydregion? Gloria frowns. No, she’s still missing something. 

They hear the crash from the Stow-on-Side monument. The two of them look at each other and take off in the direction of the sound.

The copperajah is the first thing they see, its body gleaming in the rays of the setting sun. 

"Bede?" 

She didn't think that he would own a copperajah even. Didn't seem his style. 

"Trainer Victoria." She doesn't like the look in his eyes. "Get out of the way." 

"Not until you explain what you're doing." 

"I have my orders," he sneers. "If you won't move - " He waves a hand. 

She dives just as the copperajah charges straight at her, and towards the mural. 

She chokes on dust as she gets up. Her knees are covered in scrapes and she fully intends to pummel Bede to the ground. Ponce could have killed her. 

"Bede!

Oleana strides through the rubble like a goddess in heels, her hair whipping behind in the wind.  

"Oleana, ma'am. As ordered, I've- " 

"I don't know what orders you were given, but destroying public property certainly wasn't one of them!" 

Bede stiffens. Gloria expects him to sneer the way he always does. To her surprise, he apologises. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry." 

"What's all this? Bede, what have you done?" 

Bede sinks into a low bow as Chairman Rose steps out of the crowd, expression serene, dust settling in the fine wool of his suit. 

"Sir." 

Rose surveys the scene coolly, and Gloria shudders as his eyes meet hers. Rose doesn't react, only keeps the placid little half-smile on his face. Then he turns to face Bede. 

"I'm revoking your Gym Challenge recommendation." 

Bede flinches, but he still doesn’t protest the way Gloria can see he wants to. "Yes sir." 

"The rest of you gawkers, move along." Oleana glares at the tourists and townsfolk with enough force that everyone follows. Muttering as they do so, but they follow. It's an impressive skill, Gloria admits grudgingly. 

"You should get yourself looked after," Oleana says curtly to Gloria. 

"I'm fine," she says through gritted teeth. This is odd. Why is Oleana the one to clear people out? Where are the police? 

"Let's go," Sonia says, grabbing Gloria's arm. She follows obediently, but as they climb down the stairs she is still unable to shake the feeling that someone is watching her go. She would bet everything she owned that it is Rose. She turns, and gasps. 

Where the monument was, there are now statues. Two people, two pokemon, sword and shield in their mouths. The pokemon are lupine-like, long elegant bodies that look oddly familiar, even though she has never ever seen such pokemon before.

Oh. 

The stones are old - older than the fairy silk tapestries. She thinks they might have had colours once, but those have long been worn away, leaving only smooth brown stone, the same colour as the rocks that Stow-on-Side is carved from.  

Who had covered up the statues? When? Why?

The colours of the mural were still vivid - even with the intensity of the heat in Stow-on-Side. It can't have been up for long. 

How had no one noticed? How had no one cared? 

She thinks about what Kabu had said, about people in Galar sleepwalking. Was this short term memory what he had meant? 

Sonia's conspiracy theory likely holds more weight than she'd initially thought. 

She turns to look at the monument again. As she does, she swears Rose catches her eye and smirks. 

It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you. 

Chapter Text

Glimwood Tangle is almost otherworldly in its beauty. 

It's also rumoured to be haunted, just like the Slumbering Weald, and Gloria can almost believe it. The canopy grows so thickly that no sunlight ever reaches the undergrowth. Navigation by the skies is impossible. Compasses and rotom-pinpointed positioning systems do not work. She swears the trees are whispering to themselves. Brambles springing up as soon behind her so she can never retrace her steps. 

More than one enterprising company has attempted to pave a proper road through the tangle. Construction never lasts more than a couple of days. Equipment malfunctions, workers and their pokemon have accidents, whatever progress they make is always filled with tangled growth by the next morning. 

Most people are resigned to taking a corviknight cab there. Gloria had just laughed and told Sonia to go on without her before heading into the forest, her bicycle strapped across her back while she picked her way through the almost-path. 

The online guides say that the trick to finding Ballonlea is to get as lost as possible. The town is in the heart of the forest, so when one is well and truly lost, they only need to follow the direction of the hattrem's singing.  

Gloria calls bullshit.

The first time she’d gone on a camping trip in Petalburg Woods with Sapphire, Sapphire took her bag and left her with a tropius and a knife, strict instructions to not fly further than the canopy above and a promise that she’d be picked up in two weeks. 

There are always ways to pick out a path. Through scent, the way the waters run, the direction of the beedrills flying, the density of shroomish populations. 

So Glimwood Tangle is teeming with the more esoteric psychic, ghost, dark, and fairy types. They’re pokemon all the same. 

She has Myrtle, Orion and Hanabi out, protection against any morgrems or phantumps that might take offence against their presence. There’s a rustle from above, and Tempo falls from the overhanging branches lands neatly in front of her and points the way. 

She touches a mushroom gently and it lights a path. The ground beneath her feet crunches with dead leaves. Around them, she can hear the quiet chatter of impidimps.  

It is all so beautiful. She wishes Victor were here to see this. 

After a few hours of wandering through, she settles down for lunch with her team. She’s still not certain how much further she is from Ballonlea, but she’s hoping that they’d reach before night. 

It’s foolish, she knows - but she feels herself drift after she packs away the food. She might have stepped on a mushroom, or it could be a pokemon’s sleep spores. She’d get up in a moment. Just a moment. 

Gloria dreams of a time in another forest. 

 

"We're not supposed to go past that gate!" Victor yells. 

"But we have to get the wooloo back!"

Gloria doesn’t have to look back to know that the expression on her twin’s face; the one where he is torn between duty and obedience. She already knows which one he will pick. 

A moment later, he’s running after them.

It doesn’t take long for them to get well and truly lost though. The ever-present fog is rising up so thickly they can barely make each other out. 

“We better hold hands,” Victor says. “We’re going to get separated at this rate.” 

Hop and Gloria follow obediently, taking one of Victor’s outstretched hands. For all their teasing at Victor’s worrying, his rare instructions always make sense. 

An eerie howl starts, long and drawn out. A second one starts up again the second it ends. 

“That doesn’t sound like any pokemon I’ve heard before,” Gloria says slowly. 

“I don’t recognise it either,” Victor says. 

That’s even more worrying, but she doesn’t think it’s a good time to say that out loud. They move closer to each other on instinct. 

“It’s alright." To his credit, Hop’s voice is barely shaking. “Shearlock will protect us! And our new pokemon!” 

None of them need to say out loud that Shearlock still has problems with headbutting his targets because the wooloo likes to run with his eyes closed. And the pokemon they’d received from Leon the day before are just babies, still unaccustomed to their trainers. 

“Well, we now know why the Weald is off-limits,” Victor says dryly. 

“We just have to stick together, and someone will eventually find us.” Gloria knows she’s full of false bravado, and knows that Victor knows it too. She can’t tell if the sweat in her palms are hers or Victor’s but she’s not going to complain now, just grips tighter. 

Then the figures approach them. Lupine-like and treading towards them so softly on the grass they don’t make any noise. 

Hop has his pokeball out, ready to send it flying when Victor lets go of Gloria’s hand and grabs Hop’s wrist. “Don’t aggravate them.” 

“Mate, I don’t know if they’re going to care about that, they look hungry - "

Victor shushes him and steps ahead, spreading his arms wide slowly. “We didn’t mean to disturb you,” he says. Slow and calm. Gloria can see how he’s frowning slightly, the way he has a puzzle that he can’t solve. “We were just looking for a wooloo that had run in by accident.” 

The closest one - bigger and bulkier than the scarred one, steps up close. Victor reaches out a tentative hand to let it sniff. His fingers pass through the pokemon’s nose.

“They’re illusions?” Gloria yelps. 

Victor whips around to shush her, but the pokemon roar again, and the fog thickens. 

Gloria tries to choke out her brother’s name, but she realises she’s already on the ground - she doesn’t even remember when she fell. The fog is thick enough that she can’t even see her own arm, which she can feel, barely. 

She’d get up in a moment. She will. Then she’ll look for Hop and Victor and Victor will think of a way to get them out. 

When her eyes finally fall open, Leon stands over them, hands on his hips, as intimidating as the charizard by his side. His Champion cloak is so heavy that it doesn’t even move in the wind.

“What were you all thinking?” he yells. 

Leon never yells, Gloria thinks, as she gets back up on her feet. He must have been terrified. 

"We were just going after a wooloo that had run in.” Hop says, apologetic and hanging his head in shame. 

Leon seems to soften at that, very slightly, his shoulders sagging. “Don’t ever do that again. We’ve been looking for you for hours.”

“Hours?” Gloria blinks, tries to squint through the fog for a light source. The sun is still out, it can’t have been long. "How long have we been out?” Gloria asks. 

“I don’t know, but let’s get you all home. C'mon.”

He starts back down a path with charizard leading the way - it looks like she singed a path of leaves while making her way to them. Hop is already at Leon’s elbow, and she can see the tension visibly drain from his body once Leon reaches out a hand to ruffle his hair fondly. 

Gloria turns to find that Victor still hasn’t moved, staring into the darkness of the forest. She reaches to tug him towards Leon and Hop.

“Hey, sis.” He holds onto her hand, and she can feel it shaking slightly. “You ever wonder what’s actually slumbering in here?” 

No, not really, she’d always just thought it was a name. But she knows that’s not what he’s thinking about. 

“You think we just met them?” 

“Yes.” His fingers tighten, almost painfully so. “But who were they?” 

She huffs a breath. If Victor doesn't know, how would she? “We can come back once we’re stronger to find out," she suggests. 

It seems the right thing to say. His grip relaxes slightly.  

“You two, don’t fall behind now!” 

“Coming!” they call together. Victor doesn’t let go of Gloria’s hand through the whole walk back to their home. 

 

Sonia knocks on the door of a cottage, Amelia at her side. There’s a immediately a crash from the inside. 

She’d asked around - a number of artists have settled down in Ballonlea, but she mentions someone who had moved from Motostoke and was pointed to the one cottage.

“Who is that?” There’s loud thumping and then the door is flung open. “Who dares disturb my fiery self?”

“Hello,” Sonia says, wishing she had Hop or Gloria with her as back up. She squares her shoulders at the thought. No. She can fight her own battles. 

"Are you the artist who did that sculpture at Budew Inn?"

He steps aside wordlessly and she takes that as an invitation to enter. 

The inside of the cottage stinks of oil paints and rotting food. She does her best to not wrinkle her nose - politeness can always get one far when needed. He indicates a grimey couch; she settles herself at the very edge of it and watches the man carefully. Amelia settles herself by her feet, keeping herself still and her eyes half-closed, but her ears still alert. 

The artist doesn’t sit down himself, only stands as he stares down Sonia. 

“He didn’t send you, did he?” His voice is hoarse, as though it’d been rusting in silence. 

“Who?” 

“Rose. The Chairman.”

“No, no he didn’t.” 

“Why are you here?” 

“I’m studying up on Galar’s history, and I realised there were some discrepancies. I was curious about the statue.” It isn’t a lie. 

The man mutters, pulling at his hair as he does.

“Yes. The statue. Rose was the one who asked for it.” 

“What happened?”

He keeps muttering under his breath, and she strains to hear. “Just one hero he said. Galar doesn’t need two. Just the one. Like one Champion. One defender against the darkness.” 

She wonders if this is how she sounds to people during her breakdowns. 

"Why did you move here? I saw your studio in Motostoke." 

"Couldn't sleep,” he says. "Kept having dreams." 

"What kinds of dreams?" 

"Red light pouring down. A hand, floating over Galar." 

"A hand?" 

He nods, still tugging at his hair. "A hand, destroying Galar. So much red. So much screaming. Couldn't sleep. Moved here. The hatterines singing helps. I think." 

Sonia's head hurts. How does one parse what is useful and not? What is truth and what is delusion? 

"Last question," she says, for herself as much as the man pacing the floor. Her legs tap a jittery rhythm. The carpet is squishy under her feet. She tries not to think about it. "Do you know anything about the mural at Stow-on-Side? Which artist did it?" 

"Oh." The former sculptor laughs hysterically long enough that Amelia stands up, hackles rising. He doesn’t even seem to notice. 

Finally, he stops. “The mural was the last thing he did. Then he climbed up high enough one of the Hammerlocke buildings and went plop. Maybe he should have moved here too.” 

 

Tiny pokemon clamber up and down the picturesque cottages - its impossible to keep them out here unlike every other settlement in Galar that has walled itself up against wild pokemon. 

Ballonlea is soft light and singing hatterms. Ballonlea is like a fairytale. Ballonlea makes her senses shriek and her skin crawl. She doesn't know how people can stand to live near it. 

Gloria had woken up in tears without understanding why and heard the singing. She found the town within five minutes. 

Fucking psychic types. Fairies aren't much better. And here she is, surrounded by them.

She doesn’t fear them. Really. She just really doesn’t like them. 

She lets Sonia and Hop know she's arrived - Hop has his Gym Challenge in two hours, so she immediately heads over to watch. There's a free slot after Hop's match, which she registers for. The receptionist is a nice smiley grey-haired lady who doesn’t make any comments about the grass stains on her jeans and the twigs in her hair, just gives her a bag to place her laundry in and tells her that the staff will take care of it. She also makes use of the gym's shower facilities. Takes her team out in one of the practice rooms, and runs them through their strategy again. 

Fine. Everything should be fine. 

She seats herself in the auditorium in the box reserved for other Gym Challenges. The stadium's already packed, a large 

The Ballonlea gym is known for being unrelenting. Three matches with the gym trainers back to back - the traditional format that most other gyms in Galar have eschewed for flashier formats. Throughout the match, Opal would shout questions in the mic in the trainer's ear, and he would respond. Depending on the answer, the field might change, making the match either easier or harder. A potion tossed to either battling pokemon. A favourable weather set up. The questions and their answers would always be muted though, so the audience never knows what to expect. 

It goes against Galar’s insatiable need to sensationalise every match, but perhaps the League has deemed there sufficient entertainment value in the challengers' reactions alone. Trainers have been known to shout, to cry, to flail wildly at Opal. No one ever discusses what they are asked after the match. Reporters are banned from speaking to the trainers about it. 

It all went back to how damn cute fairy pokemon were, which meant that there was always a solid viewings of the gym's matches, even if they were less flashy than Hammerlocke's double battles. That, and the fact that there is a solid betting pool for how a trainer would react in a battle. 

Hop doesn't break down in his, though Gloria doesn't miss how he fumbles a couple of calls, how he clenches his jaw. He wins, though narrowly, and doesn't stop frowning even after Opal hands him his badge and pets his hand, since he's too tall to reach up to his head. 

"Congratulations," she says to him after sneaking to the trainer's locker room. She's technically not supposed to be there for another half hour, but she figures it's time that she initiated one of these clandestine meetings herself. 

"Thanks for coming down, Ria." Hop's smile is distinctly less sunny than it usually is. "I'm going to call it a night, if you don't mind."  

She gives him a hug as tight as she can manage. " 'course not. Let me know if I can do anything." 

"Let's get some of those fancy pastries for breakfast," he says. His smile is small, but at least seems genuine enough. "Good luck for your match." 

She steps out into the field when called, mike in her ear, lipstick glistening on her lips. 

She's overlevelled enough now that she doesn't need type advantages for the challenge itself. Myrtle and Seriyu are strong enough to tank any damage, and hit back with double their own. A wall placed rainy day also goes a long way. 

But then there are the questions Opal croaks down her ear. They start inane enough. 

"What's the last thing you ate?" 

Apple Curry," she says, and nothing changes. Too easy then, to be one of Opal’s challenger questions. 

“Your first pokemon?”

“Seriyu.”

“Your favourite pokemon?”

She stumbles on that one, and misses calling out a warning to Seriyu, who is then hit by the slurpuff’s energy ball. He roars, but sounds more annoyed than hurt, and then proceeds to sweep off the tiny opponent off the field with an aqua tail. 

“Good job, Seriyu!” she calls. 

“I don’t have one,” she says, and then the effects of Rainy Day stops all of a sudden, and blazing heat and light pours through. 

Apparently not the right answer, though she isn’t sure what the right one would be. Seriyu as her first pokemon? Tempo for being her rock since she came from Galar? Even Fluffy, for being an almost-present from Raihan? Or someone from her Hoenn team? 

It isn’t right to have a favourite. Or, if favouritism was normal, it wasn’t right to even admit one out loud. 

“Seriyu, use Dragon Dance!” she calls out as the other trainer readies her pokemon. Enhanced speed and attack will hopefully make up for the sunlight. 

"Why did you not challenge the Hoenn Championships?"

“I wanted to come back to Galar.” 

The blaze dims slightly, until the stadium returns to normal weather conditions. Acceptable enough answer, and the truth, even if it is almost a like from the sheer number of omissions in that statement. 

“Do you think I’m insane, Trainer Victoria?” Opal cackles in her ear. Gloria can’t tell if it is a Question or not. 

“Yes,” she grunts anyway, and then orders Seriyu use ice beam on the mogrem on the field. Then she adds grudgingly “But I’ve always thought you were brilliant anyway.”

The flattery works though, and Opal only cackles again. And then the field darkens into a storm again, and Seriyu takes out the mogrem with a well-placed hurricane. 

“Why do you run from psychic types so much?” Opal asks and Gloria’s breath catches. Her dislike for psychic types isn’t something she’s ever mentioned on her social media, or with the press. 

The Wizard, Opal is known as, but really, Witch seems more appropriate. 

“They were Victor’s pokemon,” Gloria finally says. The half-truth seems to be sufficient, at least so that she doesn’t notice a change in the field, positive or negative. 

She’d always preferred dark types, fighting types - physical attacks that could make contact with the world and made sense. Victor’s preference was the special attackers - psychic and fairies and anything that could bend the world in uncertain ways.

The world is difficult enough. Thoughts should be kept to oneself. Feelings should be let out, not rolled into constipation so that a hattrem doesn’t end up punching one in the face. 

She doesn’t want anyone knowing her thoughts if it isn’t Victor. 

Opal hums, and on the field, Myrtle glows briefly - she suspects some kind of stat inducing change. The mimikyu sends a shadowball at the trainer’s gradevoir. It keels over with a high-pitched scream, and faints immediately. The rain clears up, and the doors on the opposite side of the field open. 

She moves to the next field and meets Opal in the middle. 

She’d thought that Opal looked tired at the Opening Ceremony. Here now, she still moved stiffly and the hunch looked as pronounced as ever, but her eyes are bright and animated. The bracelets on her wrists jangle as they shake hands. 

“What a lovely lipstick shade,” Opal says, curving her own painted lips.

"Thank you ma'am," Gloria says stiffly. How is one supposed to react anyway to the person who has been shooting all sorts of increasingly personal and bizarre questions, and judging one's truth from it? 

Opal withdraws her hand and rests it on her cane, but doesn't move a move to turn around. "You have far more pink than you're willing to admit," she says. "I'm looking forward to this battle." 

"Likewise, ma’am.” 

Opal nods, and then begins shuffling slowly to her side of the field. Gloria waits for her to take her position, then issues her challenge. 

Opal sends her Galarian weezing first, and Gloria responds in textbook form with Orion. 

“Swagger,” she says. The corviknight follows, and then the weezing almost trips itself over in an attempt to move closer to the corviknight. 

“Steel wing,” she calls, but Orion is already following up with the attack. 

“Strange steam!” Opal calls from her end of the field and the Weezing pulls itself together long enough to send the multi-coloured lights straight into Orion’s face. It doesn’t do much damage, but she can tell that the attack does its job and the corviknight is confused, eyes slightly glanced over. 

It doesn’t matter. She can always rely on Seriyu's competitiveness to shake through any kind of stat change.

“Steel wing again!” she shouts. “Finish it!” The corviknight seems to straighten slightly, and dives straight for the weezing, wings extended and ready to swipe.

Critical hit, she thinks, and feels a flash of pride for her vicious little - well, not little anymore - pokemon. A couple more weeks, a good diet and some more training and he’ll be Championship material. 

Opal really the fallen weezing, and sends out a mawile. Gloria can’t help but smile a little at the familiar pokemon - she’d seen plenty of them when training at Granite Cave. 

“Your turn, Hanabi!” The salazzle leaps onto the field and sits out a Toxic, as rehearsed, the poison sinking into the mawile’s steel and turning it into an odd shade of green almost immediately. 

There’s cheering from the crowd. Salazzles’ corrosion weren’t always a useful ability, given their poor defence, it was almost always better to just use a flamethrower against a steel type. That didn’t mean it wasn’t fun to watch a steel type get poisoned when it happened. 

Orion got his pettiness from his trainer, that was for sure. 

“Draining kiss!” Opal commands. The mawile advances towards the salazzle, swinging its jaws towards Hanabi. 

Hanabi doges the attack and from a safe distance, spits out a ball of flame. 

The decision to poison it was also a calculated one, and one she’s decided she can’t risk with duraldon, or any other faster pokemon. Mawile, for all its prettiness, was far too slow for a pokemon that relied on attacks that went up close. 

“Rock slide,” calls Opal, and the rocks tumble down hard onto Hanabi before she can shout a warning.

Gloria feels the blood drain from her face. Hanabi crawls out from the rocks, battered, but she needs her for the fight against Opal’s dynamaxed pokemon.

Humility, she chides herself. A lesson that the tides of a battle can be easily turned, not matter  She needs to save her next pokemon, so she sends Orion out again. 

The toxic from the beginning of the battle is at least doing its work though. The mawile attempts to send another rock slide to crash down on the corviknight, but Orion dodges the attack in time. 

“Steel wing!” Gloria calls. She sounds confident enough, but in truth, there was a reason why she’d sent Hanabi out on this round rather than Orion. The further her pokemon stayed away from those oversized steel traps, the better. 

The attack connects, and Orion dodges away in time as the jaws move to snap at the corviknight. Then the mawile keels over from a combination of the attack and the toxic still in its body. 

She keeps her smile on her face for the camera, but heaves a sigh internally. She wouldn’t have wanted to take her chances with a long drawn out battle with the mawile. She also makes a mental note that Orion needs to learn more attacks that can be done at a distance. 

“Oh good, my tea’s finally kicking in,” Opal says in a singsong voice, amplified by the microphones. She reaches for her last pokemon while Gloria recalls Orion, whispering a good job as she tucks the pokeball away in her pocket. 

Alcremie. She’s willing to bet its the one she uses for her Championship as well. 

It’s not anything less than what she expects, at this point. 

“Go, Tempo!” Her rillaboom explodes out into the field in a burst of light and makes a run as Opal moves to Dynamax her alcremie. The leech seeds spray out - toxic leech seeds again, this time made from Hanabi’s toxins, and far more lethal than the ones that had been used at the Hulberry. The seeds bury themselves into the alcremie’s body just as it is recalled. 

Opal chuckles as she dynamaxes the alcremie. “We’re going to have fun with this,” she calls, tossing the dynamaxed ball.

She’s right - the alcremie gigamantaxes instead of dynamaxing, rising high above the stadium, turning into, a giant tiered cake that makes Gloria think, absurdly, of tea and how much she would like some at that point. She’d made sure her pokemon were fed before the fight, but had only had a few granola bars herself, unable to stop her stomach churning - from nerves, excitement, the fairy types crawling in throughout the town, she isn’t sure. 

“Get it with a screech!” she calls, and Tempo is already moving up close and making roaring at the alcremie, unperturbed at how much the giant cake towers above him. 

“G-Max Finale!” Opal waves her cane. 

Tempo does his best, but there is no dodging the attack. She grits her teeth, knows that the alcremie has also healed itself, but the toxic leech steeds should still be seeping away at its health while also healing Tempo. Not enough though - he still looks visibly ragged from the attack. 

“Grass knot,” she shouts. Vines spring up around the alcremie, but to her horror, it manages to rip them all from their roots with a shrug. 

“That doesn’t work on dynamaxed pokemon, lassie,” Opal calls from across the field. 

No help about it then. She withdraws Hanabi and treats her with a hyper potion while Tempo takes another hit G-Max Finale. 

Time. She just needs to buy enough time for the toxins do its job. She will reflect on her mistakes after the match. 

The alcremie’s icing looks like its starting to melt, and Tempo is close to fainting, so she takes it as time. 

“Your turn, Hanabi,” she says, and the salazzle scrambles back out into the field. She recalls Tempo before the rillaboom collapses. It’s a near thing, but she’s gone through the challenge without her pokemon fainting yet, and she’s not going to start now. 

“Venoshock!” she calls. 

Hanabi stands up once she’s close enough, and the venom pours out from her mouth - an onslaught made stronger by the questionable mushrooms she’d been eating in Glimwood Tangle, and her taste for the poisonous berries Gloria had picked up when they were all in the Wild Area. 

It’s enough. The alcremie shrinks down to its normal size as it faints, and she can’t help but jump in her excitement, scratching Hanabi fondly as the salazzle makes her way to her.  

It had been close. She wasn’t sure how well Hanabi would have handled a G-Max attack, even with her type advantage, which was why she’d healed her before sending her out. Alcremie’s physical defence also increased immensely when dynamaxed, so she would have needed a special attacker, not a physical attacker. 

She shakes her thoughts away as she recalls her pokemon and walks to the centre of the field. Opal presses the badge to her hand. 

“Well done, lass,” Opal says, smiling. “Would you like to come by my place for a spot of tea, once you’re done with the press?” 

“I - "

“Just ask any of my staff members for the address. I’ll be seeing you then.”

Witch indeed. 

The press asks about her grass knot mistake, of course. she admits that it had been her error, because there is no good way to spin it. 

“I clearly still have a lot to learn,” she says, and hopes it sounds sincere enough. It’s nothing but the truth. 

“This is the first time you’ve used a healing item during a match. Is this because your pokemon are starting to face a wall? When will you Dynamax your pokemon?” one of the reporters ask, and she’s at least prepared for this question several gyms ago. 

“Ooof, those are some heavy questions!” she laughs. “Each battle has definitely been difficult in their own way! And as I said, I made a mistake with this one, and needed to take the time to heal my salazzle as a result. I’m really enjoying thinking up ways to deal with Dynamaxed pokemon!” 

“Dynamaxing is a Galar speciality! If you’re aiming for the Championships, what would a Champion be if she didn’t made use of the region’s speciality?” 

She keeps her smile plastered on her face as she turns to the reporter. She’s willing to bet that that was a question planted by Rose. 

“Spikemuth’s gym leader Piers doesn’t dynamax, and not all citizens have access to dynamax bands. While the phenomenon is certainly unique to the region, I’m hoping we’ll still see the value of pokemon battles, even without having dynamaxed pokemon stomp around the field!” 

It works. They move on to other questions, asking her about her team lineup. 

 

Opal stays in something closer to a manor than the cottage her family home in Postwick. It’s still more homely than intimidating, and filled with squashy looking furniture and expensive-looking porcelain sets tucked behind glass shelves. 

“Come right in,” Opal says, hobbling towards what Gloria thinks must be the sitting room. “I hope those mandibuzzes weren’t too hard on you.” 

“I’m getting used to it, I suppose. Ma’am.”

“Oh stop with that. Call me Opal. Miss Opal if you must.” 

“Yes… Miss Opal.” 

She sinks into the nearest armchair, and thinks she could fall asleep in it. It’s been a very long day. 

There’s a tea tray laid out on the table, filled with scones, still warm and smelling heavenly. Another plate heaped with cake and eclairs and finger sandwiches. Clotted cream and jam on the side. Her stomach gurgles.

“Please, it’s already late. Help yourself.” 

Opal delicately pours out a fragrant smelling tea in two cups. 

“Sugar?” 

“No thank you.” The tea smells like roseli berries, which is funny. Opal doesn’t touch the food, only sips at her tea while watching Gloria eat. She does her best to not be a savage, but her time camping makes it a little hard to recall table manners.  

“How are you, child?” 

“I’m fine, thank you, Miss Opal.” 

Opal waves aside the pleasantry, as though it were a foul smell. “I mean it, Miss Gloria. You’re back in a country alone, where your twin brother has died. Rose’s press hasn’t been as vicious as they can with a less favoured trainer, but you know the weight of their scrutiny. How are things?” 

“I’m not quite alone,” she says, thinking of Hop, and Sonia, and Raihan.

“Ah.” Opal smiles, and Gloria swears the old crone knows exactly who she was thinking of. Again, she remembers the Gym Leaders know. “It is good to have your companions, yes.” 

“How are you, Miss Opal?” Gloria asks solicitously, trying to not make it seem too obvious that she’s attempting to change the subject. 

Opal sighs, and seems to droop a little more in her hunch.

“I truly hope you’re not just asking that question out of politeness, girl.”

“I’m not.” 

“The last few years have not been kind, I will admit,” Opal says. “It is taking far longer than I expected to find an heir to Ballonlea’s gym.” 

Gloria frowns. “Surely there would be no shortage of applicants.”

“Ballonlea’s history stretches as long as Hammerlocke’s, though we may not always trumpet it,” Opal says, cup clattering slightly as she places it down on its saucer. “A successor doesn’t just have to appreciate the history of this place, but must understand Ballonlea’s place in Galar.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“People think of this town as a quaint place to come on holiday, to settle for a sabbatical. We are still the last town that has wild pokemon settle here, without care for their dangers.”

It's all too similar to Gloria’s observations as she’d wandered around the town earlier. 

"We maintain the balance, because they know our intentions, and they in turn, well they play their pranks, but nothing more harmful than souring milk or stealing silver. The gym leader has to understand pinkness.” 

There is that word that Opal always uses. People have speculated what pinkness meant for years. A unique connection with pokemon? Psychic abilities? Battiness? 

Most people thought the last one, after meeting Opal. 

Gloria wipes the crumbs off her lips with a tissue, folds it delicately and lays it on the table. “You told me I had pinkness,” she says. “What did you mean by that?” 

“Exactly what I said, girl.” Opal shakes her head. “So much of that potential, which you’ve smothered. Can’t blame you though, it’s hard to go at it alone.” She stirs her tea absently, her spoon rattling against the porcelain. “I suspect your brother would have made a fine successor, had he lived. You said he preferred psychic type pokemon?”

She feels as though she has an entire scone caught in her throat, and can only nod. 

“Only a hop away from fairies,” Opal murmurs. “So you don’t like psychics because they remind you of your brother?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Gloria mutters, trying not to sound like a sullen brat. 

Opal leans towards her. “You have an interesting path ahead, little one. Would you like me to read your cards?” 

“I thought that was a psychic thing,” Gloria says. 

Opal cackles. “The whole point to pinkness is to see past the barriers that separate us all. The world isn’t all divided into neat types, lass.” There’s suddenly a deck of cards in Opal’s ringed hands, which Gloria swears wasn’t there before. “Well?”

She shrugs. What can the harm be? “Sure.”

Opal pushes the tea things to the side so there’s enough space for her to fan her cards out. “Choose three and pass them to me,” she says. 

Gloria follows her instructions and Opal lays them out, face down. 

The first card is upside down. Gloria turns her head to make out the painted woman, a blindfold over her eyes, her hand laids on the two hilts of a doublade.

“Two of swords, reversed” Opal murmurs. “At some point in your path, you will have to face a difficult decision. One where you might have have all the information you need, but you will have to make the choice anyway. Your pinkness will come in handy here.”

Whatever that means, Gloria thinks, but she’s leaning in close to the cards, curious. 

The next card that is flipped over is upside down again. Arceus, floating in the sky, a laurel wreath wrapped around it. 

“The world, again reversed.” Opal traces the edges of the card with a finger, her jewels glinting and bangles jingling. “You may reach the end of your journey, but you might find something missing.” 

She flips the last one over. It looks like the Watchtower in the Wild Area, turrets burning down as people fall from it. 

“The Tower,” Opal says. “There will be a great upheaval as you go about your journey, and one that will affect not just you.” 

Gloria blinks. 

“This all seems incredibly depressing,” she says. 

Opal’s hand seems to tremble slightly as she touches the cards. “I apologise, but as I said, this is a difficult journey you are on.” 

Gloria tries to tell herself she doesn’t believe in this stuff anyway, despite the sinking feeling she can’t shake herself from as she walks out of the house.

“Thank you very much for the tea, Miss Opal,” she says, because Opal was just the kind of person who brought out all the manners in a person. “And for reading my cards.” 

Opal inclines her head slightly. “My pleasure. It was a good battle. Send your friend Hop my best wishes.”

“I will.” Gloria turns to go but Opal calls her name.  

“Leon might be your goal, but you mustn’t take your eyes off the obstacles in front of you,” Opal says. She looks very tired. 

“Miss Opal?”

“Good luck on the rest of your Gym Challenge.”