He stares at the large, 52 inch television screen in all its bright, high-definition glory. If he squints, he’s fairly certain he can see every single pore on Victor’s face, every blade of grass, and even the gales of wind sweeping across the field. The audio system is the finest quality available on the market right now, every sound on the field picked up by the microphones and transmitted into the holding room he’s sitting in.
Raihan leans against the plush couch, his hands trembling in his lap. He scratches the base of his thumb harshly against his gloved fingers, and his left eye twitches intermittently. A deep breath skitters through his lips, and he realises he’s been holding his bottom lip in between his teeth for the past few seconds, his sharp canines piercing the soft skin and making it bleed.
He licks his lips. The crowd is rioting on the screen, going wild as they cheer and scream in equal amounts. If the microphones weren’t concentrated only on the commentators and the challengers, he reckons he would have gone deaf by now.
A loud, thudding noise echoes in his head. The music blasting on the field is raucous, blaring about the room with deep, hard hitting beats, and Raihan can feel his heart in his throat, pumping along to the vibration of the room.
His head pounds. Other than the music radiating through his frame, he can’t hear anything else. The commentator’s words are an indistinct ramble, and the crowd’s screaming can’t be made out at all. Even Victor’s words, whatever he’s saying as the camera zooms in on his face to capture the words of the challenger- they’re all just a blur.
Raihan swallows tightly, and his nails dig into the palm of his hand, biting through the thick fabric of the glove. The pain stings, and he knows he’ll find small, half-moon indentations after he removes his gloves for the night.
“Seriously?” He says, the word leaving him like a breath stolen from his lungs, and his left eye twitches again. The urge to close his eyes and leave the holding room surges inside of him, but he finds himself frozen on the couch.
The throw pillows lie on either side of him, pale purple with golden tassels barely visible in his peripheral gaze. Raihan feels like burying his face in one of them, and let fate decide if he suffocates or lives to see another day. His hand slowly extricates itself from its tight grip and pulls a pillow over.
He stares at the screen, and the camera pans to the other guy. The loser of the largest, most viewed match ever in Galar history- the king kicked off from his throne, the man of glory with his light wrenched single-handedly from him, the champion with his title stolen by a boy who was barely a teenager.
Purple hair and golden eyes stare mockingly at him through the screen.
“Congratulations, Victor! You’ve beat even the unbeatable Champion - making you the new Champion of the region!” Leon says with that deep timbre, something like glee coating his words, and Raihan feels the throw pillow explode in his hands.
He hears Leon’s voice shake, so imperceptible that no one except him, and maybe Hop, maybe his mom, would be able to tell. Raihan stares blankly at the screen, the words coming out of Leon’s mouth as the ex-champion of the region bumbles along with some happy words for Victor, and he stands up.
The pillow feathers are still fluttering around him. Pale purple floats down, dusting his shoulders like the base of a cloak, and Raihan can’t stay here any longer.
If he stays any longer, he might sink his fist into the centre of the television screen where Leon’s face is pasted all over, and he doesn’t want to foot the bill for that.
He stalks out of the holding room, and goes home.
Hammerlocke is a far way from Wyndon Stadium. It’s far closer to Wyndon Stadium than Wedgehurst, but that’s because Leon lives in the middle of absolutely nowhere and Raihan’s mom had better sense to stay somewhere central.
Regardless, Raihan is going home, where he can fall into his bed and curl up with the windows shut and curtains drawn, and mull over his thoughts for a week or so. He wants to erase himself from the entirety of Galar for a moment, just to collect himself.
It feels strange. He feels like he’s been stripped clean of his entire identity, and forced to pretend to be someone else. For the past… what, eight, ten years? A hollow laugh forces its way out of his throat as his fingers clench into a tight fist on his lap.
For the past ten years, Leon has been the Galar Champion. For ten years, he’s been the unbeatable Champion of Wyndon Stadium, and Raihan has been the Gym Leader of Hammerlocke Stadium. For ten long, long years, Raihan has been the closest anyone has ever been to defeating Leon.
And now, everything he’s strived for has been stolen away from him by a boy.
Raihan can’t fathom how Leon is willing to smile about it. Alright, Leon had to smile for the cameras because he couldn’t just cry on the field, but Raihan had seen it. He had seen Leon’s first, pure, uncensored reaction to his loss; the pulling of the cap to cover his eyes, the trembling lower lip, the way his fingers shook as he steadied his hand before throwing his cap up- Raihan simply cannot understand how Leon still stood there on the field, shaking hands with Victor and clapping him on the shoulder.
For his part, Raihan is not as big a man as Leon is. He remembers losing to Victor in his stadium, and the bitter, unwilling feeling that dredged itself up from inside of him, but he recalls with startlingly sharp clarity his reassurance that Leon wouldn’t lose to Victor.
It’s like viewing the past through broken shards of glass, all scattered and pricking blood from his fingers with every memory he struggles to fish out.
How exactly does one disappear off the face of the earth for a few days? He taps away at his Rotom Phone, but PokeSearch doesn’t offer an answer. All it tells him is to seek professional help if he’s suffering from an existential crisis.
That doesn’t help, but his Rotom Phone spins around, nudging at his fingers with its sides in an insistent manner.
Raihan attempts to lift his lips in a smile to placate his Rotom Phone, but his Rotom Phone has snapped enough pictures of his smile to know when he’s faking it, apparently. It makes a face at him, then rubs at his fingertips.
“Congratulations, Victor,” Raihan echoes, and scoffs under his breath, shaking his head. “Did you hear him?” He asks his Rotom Phone, and it shakes incredulously, as indignant as he feels.
His beanie feels constricting around his head, and he rips it off, running his fingers through his hair and massaging his temples. “Can you believe it? He loses- he loses, and he just stands there like a fool! To a child as old as Hop, of all things?!”
Raihan inhales a shaky breath, and his head pounds with all the blood rushing to it. He knows it’s not a fair statement - there’s nothing wrong with someone of Hop’s age becoming a Champion or defeating a Gym Leader. Heralding in the new generation with a bang is always necessary. It’s the cycle of life, always changing, always evolving.
But Leon didn’t have to lose to Victor first. Leon should have lost to him. He should have been the one to wrestle Leon off his high throne, take the crown and put it on his head after ten bloody years of chasing him, and then it would have been a light-hearted, competitive fight between them, before Victor comes onto the scene and rips them both apart.
And yet, and yet-
He exhales, patting his chest in an attempt to calm his breathing. It’s a terrifying thing, being overcome with anger to the point where his head gets messy. His Rotom Phone makes a clicking noise, like a photo being snapped, and Raihan lifts his head, raising an eyebrow at it.
“Don’t take a picture of me from there,” he says, a weak smile on his face. “That’s my bad angle.”
The Rotom Phone clicks away furiously for a few more moments, darting around Raihan’s face. He huffs out a laugh, closing his eyes as he waves his hand, gently batting at the hovering Rotom Phone. “C’mon, I look terrible right now. Even the selfies taken by you would be bad.”
His Rotom Phone freezes, and the clicking noise stops. Raihan imagines the Pokemon has listened to him for the first time in its existence, and he relaxes into the soft seat.
Then he sits up and forces his eyes open. His Rotom Phone is disobedient on a bad day and frivolous on a good day, and it has never listened to him unless he’s using it in a match, which never happened.
Leon stands in front of him, swaying slightly along with the rocking of the train, and Raihan immediately closes his eyes again.
Even a nightmare wouldn’t be so cruel to have Leon appear in front of him, he thinks. He’s on a train, on the way back home to hole up and sulk, and he’s doing perfectly fine without any sort of intervention from Leon, or his hologram.
“You don’t have a single bad angle,” Leon says, his voice lilting with amusement, but Raihan hears what’s beneath it. It’s a bone-deep tiredness rattling through the words, and he feels bad for the man.
But he also feels bad for himself and his ruined reason for existence, so Raihan has absolutely no pity for the man before him.
He doesn’t deign Leon with an answer. All he does is lean back, resting his head against the top of the back of the seat and motion for his Rotom Phone to scoot back into his pocket.
Leon sighs. Raihan hears him shift around, settling into the seat across him. He didn’t see any luggage, so Leon just up and left Wyndon Stadium without any sort of possessions? No clothes, no Pokeballs, no cologne? Pity, Leon’s cologne might have been the one thing that saved him, but he left it in Wyndon Stadium. Raihan’s not feeling particularly forgiving to a man that doesn’t smell like victory.
It’s a long ride back to Hammerlocke, and Raihan doesn’t intend on interacting with Leon for the entire trip at all.
A deeper sigh, and a hand on his knee. Raihan shifts, a frown pulling his lips down as his brows crease, and Leon’s hand slides with Raihan’s movement, his calloused fingers barely skirting past the skin under Raihan’s shorts.
Okay, maybe he will interact with Leon after all.
He opens a single, lazy eye and looks at Leon. Raihan crosses his arms over his chest, shoulders tight with tension, and he raises an eyebrow. “Is it easy to smile when you’ve lost, ex-Champion?”
Leon makes a face. It’s a face that pulls at Raihan’s heartstrings. No matter their age, Leon’s face always does something complicated to his chest, and it’s something that Raihan can’t leave unattended.
“It’s important for the new generation to enter the playing field.” Leon sighs again, and turns to look out the window. The scenery flies by, the long grass slanting in the wind as the train hurries along. “Look at Hop. He and Victor are rivals, and it’s simply just the younger generation chasing on the heels of the older generation. It’s-”
“So, us being rivals isn’t important?” Raihan interrupts, kicking his leg out and forcing Leon to remove his hand. There’s something tense in his voice, like a thrumming wire pulsing and ready to ignite. “Ten years of battling, ten losses but the closest anyone has ever been to beating you, and it’s all thrown to the side in the name of- in the name of letting the younger generation enter the playing field?!”
Leon turns back to him sharply, his eyes wide. “Raihan-”
“You were supposed to-!” Raihan heaves, his eyes wet, and his voice cracks in the middle of his sentence. “You were supposed to lose to me!”
His words come out in a sob. A desperate noise tears itself from his throat, and Raihan scrubs the rough surface of the back of his glove against his eyes. He knows he must make a pitiful sight. Years of taking selfies with his Rotom Phone has made him painfully aware of how he looks from any angle, and in any form.
He rubs furiously against his eyes. His crying face is the absolute worst. He’s not like the kind of people who cry gracefully, with individual tears rolling carefully down their cheeks as their eyes glitter with unshed wetness. No, Raihan cries like an utter fool, sniffling and gasping for shuddered breaths.
But he can’t help it. The anger surges up inside of him like an uncontrollable wave, pushing and pulling like a tide that just won’t let him go. It’s a consuming despair, something desperate wrung out in his voice, and Raihan stands up. He starts pacing in the tight, narrow space between the two long seats in the private carriage, his hands darting from his hair, to his eyes, to his pockets.
“I just cannot,” Raihan says, in a trembling, hoarse shout, “I cannot believe that you would lose to-”
“Did you think I wanted to lose?!”
Leon’s voice rings out sharply. It stops Raihan in his tracks, his hands unclenching from the shock as the tension drains out from his body. He’s never heard Leon’s voice like that, a loud, twisted cry that shakes him to the core.
“Do you think I honestly, honestly wanted to lose to anyone other than you?!” Leon shouts, standing up and pointing a finger accusingly at Raihan. “Look at you! Look at us. Ten years, ten years- do you think I wanted anyone else to strip me of my Champion title?”
Raihan takes a shaky step back. Even with his height advantage, Leon has always had some sort of deep-seated gravitas that can’t be replicated. When he raises his voice, the world stops to listen.
Leon advances, shouting about how Raihan should have been just a bit faster, should have been stronger, should have been smarter, and Raihan sinks back into his seat. He stares at Leon’s heaving form, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.
The man advances, one knee sliding against the outside of Raihan’s left thigh, resting on the seat. Leon’s arms come up, caging Raihan in and pushing him back into the seat. There’s a terrifying expression on Leon’s face- it looks like desperation, it smells like tears, and it sounds like regret.
“I wanted it to be you,” he says quietly, eventually, his voice a broken whisper as the train rattles along its tracks, so soft that Raihan almost misses it. “I wanted it to be you.”
Raihan stares blankly at the man hovering over him, the Champion that lost his crown, and doesn’t know what to say. There’s a lot of things he can say right now. That Leon is right, of course, and it’s his fault for not getting his gig together faster. That Leon is wrong, because Raihan has been trying his fucking hardest every single year, training up his Pokemon and challenging Leon without fail, always with a smile on his face, because Raihan worked as hard as he ever could.
“Sorry,” he says, and his mind is blank. He inhales, and brings his hands up to wrap around Leon, resting the flat of his palms against Leon’s back. Raihan can feel the way Leon’s spine trembles beneath his fingertips, and he’s filled with an abrupt, overflowing sense of sorrow.
Something that sounds like a wet sob escapes Leon’s mouth, and he collapses into Raihan’s grip. His hands curve around Raihan’s neck, elbows pressing awkwardly against Raihan’s shoulders as his fingers interlace, and Raihan tightens his grip around him, pulling Leon further into his embrace.
“I’m sorry too,” Leon says, a muffled murmur buried into the crook of Raihan’s neck, and clings further to Raihan.
They sit in companionable silence for a while. One seat isn’t long enough for the both of them, not when they’re both broad shouldered and long limbed, so Leon’s shoulders are pressed up against Raihan’s upper arm and their thighs are pushed together.
Leon is a warm weight against him, and his hand entangled with Raihan’s hand is even warmer.
“So,” Raihan says, breaking the silence, and then pauses. Leon doesn’t say a word, humming quietly as he leans against Raihan, as if waiting for him to continue. “What’s next for you? Now that you’re not the Champion of Wyndon Stadium, I mean.”
“Ah,” Leon replies. He presses his lips tightly together, and there’s a dip in his brows that Raihan wants to rub away. “I don’t- I guess- well,” Leon stammers, as if he can’t make up his mind. He sighs, a deep exhalation that sounds bone-deep, and Raihan squeezes his fingers around the hand in his grip.
Leon makes a face. “I don’t know,” he says eventually. “Wherever that’ll take me, I guess. Maybe I’ll be arranged to go somewhere?”
Raihan rubs the pad of his thumb against the back of Leon’s hands. They’re ungloved, Leon’s usual fingerless gloves thrown somewhere unimportant. Just like how Leon left his cape back at the lockers in Wyndon Stadium. Just like how his cap is missing from the crown of his head.
“Well, if you ever need a place,” Raihan says casually, looking straight forward and refusing to glance to his side, “I’ll always be available. Hammerlocke Stadium is always open for you.”
Leon jolts, turning to stare at Raihan. He opens his mouth, then closes it again while tilting his head. His brows furrow, and a frown creeps on his face. “Huh?” Leon asks, shaking his head. “No, I can’t take Hammerlocke Stadium from you. I can’t believe you seriously want me to, what, steal your stadium away in a gym battle? You know I’ll win.”
“Hey!” Raihan says indignantly, focusing on absolutely the wrong part of that statement. “You lost to a kid! I have every chance of winning against you right here, right now.” He pauses, and registers the rest of Leon’s words. “And you- you think I’m asking you to defeat me in battle to take over my gym?!” He splutters, his spare hand flailing violently.
Leon looks at him in concern. “Aren’t you?”
“No!” Raihan stares heatedly at him, wondering how Leon could every think that. What kind of person does Leon think he is, for him to lie down and beg for death so Leon can, what, be a gym leader? No! Leon is going to have to figure out how to fight for gym rights of his own accord- Raihan will give up Hammerlocke Stadium over his dead body.
Raihan inhales deeply, and lets it out slowly. He feels like he needs a lot of patience for this. Could maybe take a few pointers from Kabu. He looks at Leon, and carefully picks his words. “I meant, you could come stay at Hammerlocke Stadium for a while if you still want to battle, because you don’t have a gym.”
The silence that falls is less companionable, and more incredibly awkward. The heat in Raihan’s face flushes higher and higher, and he’s filled with the urge to say something to diffuse the weird energy lingering in the suddenly cramped cabin. “I mean, I know you can always go back to your hometown where you have an actual house and an actual bed, but I just meant that if you ever wanted to stay with me, you could- uh- I have a house too! Near Hammerlocke Stadium, that is.”
“Oh,” Leon says, face pink. “Oh. I’d- I’d really like that. To live with you. Temporarily, I mean. I wouldn’t want to be too much trouble for you.”
There really, really isn’t any way, shape or form that Leon can be too much trouble, Raihan thinks. “No, you won’t be trouble,” he replies, and struggles to fight the urge to look away. “I’d like that.”
Leon looks like he’s about to spontaneously combust. The expression on his face is even more indistinguishable than the one on his face barely hours ago, when he lost to Victor. “Then I’d like that too,” he repeats like a fool, and with the brightest smile Raihan has ever seen on him.
Considering Raihan has known the man for almost his entire life, well, the expression makes something sweet curl up below Raihan’s tongue.