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this eruption undoes stagnation (mutual core)

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Raihan spends years thinking about how, exactly, to voice it. How to lay out all the wounds and scars, the bruises and screaming and storms.

 

It just shouldn’t have been like this. Shouldn’t be like this.

 

Victor, victory, victorious.

 

Raihan, for all his fronting, for all the photos and dragons and cocky, sweet smiles, is not strong enough to stay, to watch his true rival and his best friend be defeated. He has been in Victor’s shoes enough times to pinpoint the moment that Leon has lost the match, and he cannot stay.

 

He flies. This is a mistake, he realizes, because as he blindly clings to Flygon, his back is washed in the bright, warm light of a Dynamax. He closes his eyes. The second Dynamax is bright and unfamiliar, as in: not Leon. He can see it against the black of his eyelids. He can hear it, every excruciating moment of the few seconds it takes for Leon to be swept away.

 

He dives to the ground the second he thinks he’ll survive the fall. Bolts his door behind him, a dragon in his den. Ears ringing with screams that aren’t his, celebrating a battle that Leon—impossible, golden Leon—lost. Fingers numb and hair wild, brown skin blanched grey. His back curls against the stone wall, and it hurts.

 

It shouldn’t be like this.

 

 

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Along the way, the battles stop becoming battles in Raihan’s mind.

 

The two strongest rivals Galar has ever seen. Long, lanky, sun-kissed Raihan, with his bright bandana and his fangs that Leon pokes at and his quicksilver laugh. And sturdy, brilliant, proud Leon, with his bright hair and his funny clothes that Raihan tugs at and his hands on his hips.

 

They wrestle each other into the ground. Their Pokemon do, too. Raihan doesn’t ever win against Leon, but that’s okay, because nobody but Leon wins against Raihan. They are both too strong for their own good, and neither of them know it in the beginning, tearing apart pitches and kicking each at other’s feet on the train and camping out together in the wild area, putting their hearts in their curries with exaggerated kissy noises that crack them both up. 

 

They are still just Raihan and Leon, even when Leon pulls away, pulls ahead. Even when it becomes glaringly obvious that Leon will become Champion and Raihan will always be his fiercest foe. All this time, they are just rivals and trainers, a prince and a king, Raihan and Leon.

 

Until, suddenly, there is more.

 

It is after Leon takes the crown of champion. Raihan, finding himself unbridled, grins at his own pointed teeth in the mirror and hunts for dragons. Sets his sights on Hammerlocke and photographs his way there. Raihan is not Leon, so sometimes people forget how strong he is. He practically glides into the castle, into the bedroom that makes him feel like a dragon himself, into leadership. It is easy and it is fun.

 

They are both seventeen the first time they face each other on the pitch like so: Leon, Galar’s youngest champion, and Raihan, Galar’s youngest Gym Leader. This is because it takes Raihan a little while to catch up—the title of Gym Leader takes a frankly political amount of effort to work one’s way into, whereas Leon was able to crown himself through brutally efficient wins.

 

No matter. They are still here, facing one another, as it always was and always will be. Still just strong trainers. Until Leon, smiling as wide as the sky (because this is Raihan, his truest of rivals) throws his first Pokeball, and Raihan feels something akin to fire.

 

Raihan sees Leon for what feels like the first time, sees the differences in their paths acutely. Sees Leon as Galar’s golden boy, their undefeated champion. Sees himself more clearly in the aftermath of it.

 

He is Raihan, dragon prince, sentenced to his fate. And that is Leon, king of the sun. A god confined.

 

Raihan&Leon.

 

Raihan doesn’t sleep that night. He doesn’t sleep after any of his matches against Leon, ever again. How can he? Does everyone feel like that, across the pitch from Leon, or is it just Raihan, just their rivalry? He photographs himself after every match, smile slipping from mischievous and kind to downright feral. He wonders if any of the fans, any of his friends, can see the difference in his eyes and skin after he battles Leon.

 

It’s just him; it can’t be anyone else. Raihan doesn’t understand how it can feel like that. How the mantle of the Champion made Leon into something bigger. Into a force of nature.

 

And Raihan knows a thing or two about forces of nature, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he. His sandstorms. Dragon tamer becomes weather-maker. Big, brutal winds. It makes him more of a terror in the arena. Wilder. People don’t see Raihan on the pitch anymore—he saves it for the photos, for the vlogs, for the chats. In the ring, Raihan is master of the air.

 

People call it wild and terrifying and entertaining. They call it brilliant and powerful.

 

Raihan calls it a strategy. It stems from this: wanting to be a force of nature, too. It stems from this: wanting Leon to feel what he feels. It stems from Raihan, leaning into untapped power that isn’t really his, hoping it washes his skin gold and brings crowds to their knees. Hoping it makes him into half of a god.

 

Hoping it makes him into half of Leon.

 

The battles are not battles; Raihan doesn’t know what they are. He stands in the locker room before them and tries to settle his blood. He begs Sonia, the smartest and kindest and strongest person he knows, to help him find ways to calm himself scientifically. No matter how many times he “raises his aortic pressure,” as she puts it, it’s no use.

 

He sees Leon’s silhouette in the tunnel opposite him and he feels like he could take flight. Every fucking time. It’s the crowd, Raihan tells himself, it’s the match, it’s the possibility of dethroning Leon’s reign.

 

It is not.

 

One day, he will dethrone Leon. It will have to be him. The king has his dragon on a leash, Raihan thinks, half-playful and half-scared. And one day, the dragon will bite off the hand that holds it.

 

It will have to be Raihan.

 

 

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Now, there is Leon, losing.

 

There is Raihan in his castle, Raihan with his fangs, Raihan hissing and pacing, Raihan with his forehead and fingernails pressed into stone. Praying for something. Praying for Victor—victor, victory, victorious—to take it back. But he doesn’t know who he’s praying to. There is only one man Raihan worships and he is standing, defeated, on a pitch opposite someone who is not Raihan himself.

 

It shouldn’t be like this. Raihan’s gut aches and aches and he thinks he is going to be sick but it’s just the anger, just the panic. He gags into the sink and looks up into his own eyes and doesn’t recognize them. He stumbles back into his living room blindly, braces himself against the couch as he fights the impossible.

 

He is interrupted.

 

There is a knocking at his door that is mostly scratching. Soft, like it almost doesn’t want to be heard. So it could be anyone. Anything. Could be a dragon, loosed by his rage. Could be Nessa, misunderstanding: Nessa, with a bottle in her small hand, asking him to come party, come relax, come congratulate Victor.

 

Raihan opens the door, flings it backwards like he’s drawing back a fist. Like he’s hoping to drag whoever’s outside in. Fangs bared.

 

It isn’t a dragon. Isn’t Nessa.

 

It’s Leon. It could have only ever been Leon, one hand clutched around a Pokeball, the other hand white-knuckled on the doorframe. Holding himself up. Smells like wind, Raihan thinks, like fresh air and smoke. He flew here. Braced himself through the night sky to land at Raihan’s door. Leon found him.

 

Raihan looks again.

 

Leon, gold eyes slits and hair tangled over his shoulders. Cape and cap discarded, maybe to the wind by accident, maybe to the floor on purpose. Drunk or high or—maybe just ruined by the losing.

 

Both of them: ruined by the losing. Raihan’s crown has always been the other half of Leon’s, and when one is taken, both fall away.

 

There are fireworks. Over Leon’s shoulder, over Leon’s head, far in the distance. Every one of them is a knife to the gut.

 

Leon steps inside, one heavy foot after the other. His eyes are searching Raihan’s face with an intensity Raihan has never, never seen before, not on the pitch, not in training, not over a meal. Never.

 

Raihan leans around him, pushing the door firmly closed. Raihan barely hears the latch of it, the solid click of metal on metal.

 

Raihan gathers Leon in his own arms, forces them both down to their knees just inside the doorway. One of Leon’s hands is fisted in the front of Raihan’s jacket, Leon’s face buried in Raihan’s collarbone. They don’t speak. They don’t cry. In the end, they don’t even move. Raihan just presses his cheek into the crown of Leon’s head, digs his fingernails into the back of Leon’s shirt, into Leon’s bare bicep, and stares at the door.

 

He is smiling. It is not the smile he is fond of, the one that flutters on his social media, the one that he pulls so easily when he speaks. It is the teeth-baring grimace he wears on the battlefield.

 

This, too, is a battle. Raihan knows it, can feel it in his heartbeat. Or Leon’s.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is eighteen years old, and he has conquered the winds.


He is in the locker room, pride and that electric, heady buzz in his veins, a small and wild and satisfied grin on his face. He wants to take a picture of that grin, but figures he should put on a shirt first.

 

“You’ve gotten a bit stronger, then?”

 

It’s Leon, poking his head into the room. Purple curls wild, face flushed with the sarcasm in his words.

 

Because: Raihan has gotten more than a bit stronger. Raihan has conquered the winds. He still lost, but he did that, at least.

 

Leon felt it. Raihan is sure of it.

 

Raihan is shirtless and sweating and still feeling quite a bit rabid. He winks at Leon, easy and quick. “I’ll take you down next time,” he warns. “Watch your back.”

 

“Next time?” Leon asks, cocking one confident brow. Smiling.

 

Raihan thinks that they are the only two trainers who understand this. They are trapped together in adrenaline, rivalry, each of their grins more dangerous than the other’s. Leon taps the wall twice—good game, mate, or goodbye, or next time, or something—and disappears back around the corner.

 

Leon doesn’t watch his back. Raihan’s balled up sweatshirt hits him square in the shoulders on the way out.

 

 

————————

 

 

Eventually, they are both calm on the floor together, the waters quieting. Leon shifts in his arms and Raihan lets up. They haul each other to their feet.

 

Raihan knows, logically, that time is passing. He knows he is leading Leon into the hallway and pressing dry, clean clothes into his hands and turning out all the lights. He knows that he changes just after Leon and emerges from the bathroom to find Leon curled up in the left half of his bed, face unreadable. Raihan experiences it all and yet he doesn’t.

 

The world is a wildly different place than it was this morning, and Raihan doesn’t know if either of them are actually living in it.

 

Raihan hesitates for only a moment before pulling back the covers and crawling into bed besides Leon. It isn’t the first time—the amount of hotel rooms and tents they’ve shared is immeasurable, now, faint memories all vying for Raihan’s attention. Instead of reflecting on them, he takes in Leon, in an oversized t-shirt and Raihan’s sweatpants, which are ridiculously long, covering his feet.

 

Leon looks like he is drowning.

 

 

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Raihan is fourteen years old. He has just won his first gym challenge.

 

He and Leon are in their hotel room, both dizzy with glory, curled up under white covers. Leon on the left, Raihan on the right. Rivals, but best friends, their journey just beginning, opening up before them like the sea.

 

They are both so still and so quiet and so happy. Leon’s eyes are so bright and gold and gleeful. Raihan almost cannot bear the rightness of it all, this wonderful dream come true.

 

Raihan wants to take Leon’s hand in his. Wants to squeeze it once and stick his tongue out, and see Leon stick his tongue out back, purple hair a mess and smile pushing his cheeks into crinkled joy.

 

He doesn’t. Raihan’s eyes close first.

 

 

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Raihan reaches over the cold space between them, knowing where Leon’s hand is before he touches it. He just clutches Leon’s palm.

 

Leon clutches back. Just as hard. Just as terrified.

 

They are like this for some time, mirrors. Leon’s eyes are so bright and gold and hurting. Raihan almost cannot bear the wrongness of it all, this dreamscape.

 

Leon’s eyes close first.

 

Raihan slips his hand out of Leon’s when he goes completely still and pads into the bathroom, almost panicking, heart pounding a few beats over fight and a few beats under flight.

 

Here is what he knows, now, looking at Leon, Leon’s pulse still warm in Raihan’s palm.

 

Leon had been a force of nature as champion. But losing, somehow, did not take that from him. He is now Leon, fallen god, conquerer conquered, and he is still too powerful for Raihan. Still too inhuman. By the virtue of existing, Leon still has Raihan on a leash, his dragon prince to the bitter, bloody end. And this might be the end, Raihan thinks. It might be.

 

Raihan is back in front of the sink. This time, he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see himself. Mistake: now he can hear. The faint fireworks, the muted hum of music pounding over the horizon. The sounds of a celebration. People will notice Leon’s absence; it will be understandable. They might not notice Raihan’s.

 

Raihan opens his eyes and exhales once through his mouth. The bitter, bloody end can wait until tomorrow. He closes the bathroom door, slips into bed again.

 

Leon’s hand is outstretched, even in sleep. Waiting.

 

 

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Raihan is eleven years old and he has never seen someone with purple hair. It is fascinating. And this strange, Charmander-wielding, purple-haired boy wants to be his rival.

 

They shake on it. Leon’s laugh is a little bit untamed. Raihan’s teeth show, incisors digging into his lower lip.

 

They race to the wild area. Raihan, with longer legs, wins by a few paces. When Leon laughs and shoves him in the shoulder, like friends, like rivals, Raihan is overwhelmed by the feeling that he has been following Leon the whole time.

 

 

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Raihan wakes. He finds it almost disappointing that he knows, immediately, where he is and what happened yesterday. Usually, there are a few blissful moments of forgetting. Leon is gone, but Raihan reaches over and feels faint warmth on the mattress, the indentation of Leon’s body in the sheets.

 

And so Raihan rises. Comes into the kitchen silently. Leon is already looking at him, staring as if he knew Raihan was there, hands wrapped around a cup of tea.

 

This is, Raihan knows, one of the only things Leon can make without causing himself serious bodily harm. Raihan also knows that Leon must have forgotten where everything in this house is, and the image of Leon padding around his kitchen, boiling the water and looking for tea and finding the mugs, tightens Raihan’s chest. He should have been up to help. But there is still water in the kettle, and a clean mug on the counter, and so Raihan takes the invitation to sit opposite him.

 

They are, of course, older than they have ever been, thrown into this chaotic, strange world. But Raihan looks over the table and sees Leon as he was at twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty. It’s almost as though all the iterations of Raihan and Leon are sitting at this table, their histories fresh and sharp as blades between them.

 

They don’t speak. Until they do. Leon, first, as always.

 

“Should have been you.” It’s quiet, hoarse. He means: you should have beaten me. Full of rue and pain and confusion and, almost buried, humor.

 

“Should have been you,” Raihan whispers back. He means: you should have beaten him. It is all anger and bitterness and acceptance and, almost buried, humor.

 

Leon’s hands twist around the mug. “You’ve still got your Gym,” he says, not meeting Raihan’s eyes. And Raihan floods with hurt because: he has never been a Gym Leader without Leon as champion, he has never been anything without Leon as champion, and how is he supposed to find his footing now, how is he supposed to keep training people and battling people and fucking smiling like he has not had the foundation of it all ripped from under him?

 

The hurt is gone almost instantly, because Leon is right. They are not in the same position. Raihan, without question, has the easier side of this.

 

They both knew this would happen. But it was supposed to be Raihan, champion for at least a few great, turbulent, beautiful moments. Raihan, dragon unleashed, storm unbridled.

 

“And you’re still Leon,” Raihan says, because after last night, it is the one thing he knows to be true. The one thing that still scares him.

 

Leon looks Raihan in the eye.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is twenty years old and he thinks that the cameras are wonderful, wonderful things. He prefers his own Rotom, but the ones that trail him after matches are very nice as well.

 

The people attached to the cameras are just okay. They want to ask things like this: “Raihan, who’s the new addition to your team?” or “Raihan, how have you been training this year?” or “Raihan, is that a new brand deal we see?”

 

Sometimes, though, they want to ask things like this: “Raihan, are you ready for your next match against Leon?” or “Raihan, do you think you’ll ever really beat the undefeated champion?” or “Raihan, how have you and Leon enjoyed your time off?”

 

And then a fierce sort of pride will take Raihan by the heart. He and Leon, inextricable from one another. Or maybe they aren’t really, but it’s the way he wants it to be, the way he imagines it being when he’s asked questions like this.

 

And why shouldn’t he want it to be that way? He is one of two, the strongest rivals there ever were. One evidently stronger than the other, but Raihan has long learned to stop comparing himself to Leon. They are Raihan&Leon and Raihan revels in it.

 

 

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Raihan takes Leon back home. Just so he doesn’t get lost.

 

Hop, more than anyone in the world, is who Leon needs to see now. So Raihan drops him at his house (and then, briefly, glances up the hill towards Victor’s house) and makes himself busy outside.

 

It is nice out, but it is wrong. It feels exactly the same as it did yesterday, a week ago, and Raihan can’t help but think that it shouldn’t. The air should be different, somehow, and it just isn’t. Raihan is uncomfortable in his own skin, uncomfortable outside. People don’t really pay him mind, not in this sleepy town, not with the mourning Champion so close by.

 

Zamazenta bays out of sight. Hop’s very own Legendary Pokemon. Leon has none. Raihan shivers and realizes just about how different the world really is now. Eternatus, sitting in a Pokeball somewhere.

 

Leon couldn’t catch that fucking thing, he remembers.

 

Raihan drives his sneakers into the dirt just to feel the pressure. Maybe, he thinks, maybe the magic that he and Leon had was a fluke. Maybe it was two boys thinking they were special. Thinking they were these wonderful, destiny-bound rivals, Champion and Leader, king and prince. Who were they, really, to be thinking all those things? Raihan fancied them both forces of nature, although Leon a little moreso. He was certainly on something when he came up with that; had to be.

 

Raihan’s hands are fists in his pockets. He isn’t ready, he thinks, to let that beautiful dream fly. He isn’t ready to be unchained, for Leon to leave him, for Raihan&Leon to be Raihan and Leon.

 

Raihan leaves before Leon emerges from his house. It’s familiar, the leaving. He hates himself a little for it. But he’s never been the brave one between the two of them.

 

 

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Raihan is nineteen years old, and his whole future is in front of him. He is sitting thigh to thigh with Leon and the lake is perfect and blue in front of them and the wild Pokemon are cutting them a very wide berth.

 

Raihan tilts his head up towards the sun. His eyes are closed, but he would know the weight of that gaze from a mile away. He smirks. “Like what you see?”

 

Leon elbows him. “Bastard.”

 

“‘Kay, what gives?” Raihan asks. They have all the time in the world, it feels like. Endless days of it.

 

“Thinking,” Leon says.

 

Raihan scoffs. “Didn’t know you could do that.”

 

“You’re an asshole,” Leon says, no heat in it. “I’m thinking about how different it is when we’re both off work.”

 

Raihan knows what he means. They have reputations to uphold, now, their public rivalry blossoming every day; there’s Raihan’s responsibilities and Leon’s whole other world. But there are days like today, when they both have space to breathe. And they gravitate towards each other like they always have, natural and familiar.

 

Raihan hums agreement. “Tough sometimes, innit?”

 

He doesn’t expect Leon to agree, exactly. See, Raihan buckles under that pressure sometimes, shying away from the camera, wishing he was anywhere but Hammerlocke. And Leon never wavers. It seems like Raihan is just spooked a bit more easily, is just a little bit more susceptible to the very wide world.

 

They are leaning back on their hands, and their shoulders knock when Leon shrugs. Just shrugs. It is Raihan’s turn to stare; it is no wonder Leon is Champion. It is no wonder Raihan feels so tied to him.

 

“Once you beat me, I’ll have time off,” Leon says, both a promise and a taunt.

 

Maybe, Raihan thinks, his whole future is on his left.

 

 

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Sonia’s hand on Raihan’s shoulder takes at least half of the weight off of him. He leans into her. She is so bright, so smart, so untouched by the shadows and legends that Raihan and Leon have lived in for years. Shadows and legends that could have been hers, if she had wanted them.

 

Raihan wonders if Sonia had the right idea, pulling back.

 

She understands, but she doesn’t. She was there, back when Raihan and Leon took their rightful places, but she wasn’t really. She isn’t Leon. She isn’t Raihan. So maybe she can’t understand at all.

 

But Sonia is here, and she is warm and real, and she wants to help him.

 

“How is he?” Sonia asks, soft. Maybe this should seem insensitive to Raihan, but he thinks she can read it on his face: he isn’t ready to talk about his own role in all of this just yet.

 

“Not great,” Raihan admits. “I mean, he’s with Hop now. That’s good. But he didn’t sleep for very long.”

 

Sonia, bless her, doesn’t ask how Raihan knows that. “He really will be okay soon. He knew this would happen.”

 

“He did,” Raihan says. It is unspoken between them, this weighted knowledge that Raihan is supposed to be the Champion now.

 

“You haven’t posted anything all day,” Sonia says. Teasing, but concerned.

 

“Might be insensitive to Leon,” Raihan lies. He hasn’t even touched his phone today. He’s scared to.

 

Sonia curls her hair around her finger. Raihan knows she’s about to say something very wise, and he loves her a whole damn lot.

 

“I think you two should have a little battle,” Sonia suggests, and Raihan is caught entirely off guard.

 

 

—————————

 

 

Raihan is still nineteen years old, and he has a whole Gym to himself these days. If he wants to, he can send everyone out of it, use it for training.

 

If he wants to, he can invite the Champion over any time, and they can battle. Alone.

 

Well. Raihan does want to. Wants that more than a lot of things. But he never does. Maybe he is scared that Leon will think he’s just trying, relentless, to defeat the undefeatable. Maybe he’s scared that Leon will say no. Maybe he’s scared of getting the shit beaten out of him on his home turf, which is entirely valid.

 

But maybe Raihan is scared that whatever it is they have—whatever their battles have become—won’t stick around in an empty stadium. Maybe he’s scared it doesn’t exist at all.

 

 

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A week passes. Raihan and Leon do not talk. The world moves around them. Victor’s name floats around the news, the world. Raihan loses the edge of his anger.

 

Raihan takes a few selfies, and they don’t look quite right, so he sticks to pictures of his Pokemon, of Galar’s beauty. He does not acknowledge Leon in any of them. Leon makes a few appearances. He doesn’t battle anyone. He does strike his Charizard pose—that stupid fucking thing—once or twice, and so Raihan knows the worst of it has passed. Leon does not acknowledge Raihan in any of his interviews.

 

Raihan speaks to Nessa and Sonia and even Kabu, who is well-versed in the concept of “should-have-been-me.” Nessa tells him to go for a swim. Raihan lies floating, back in the water, and it doesn’t really fix much. Kabu tells him to concentrate, to double down, which helps in the moment and makes everything worse when he stops to breathe. Sonia doesn’t give him any more advice, which annoys Raihan to no end. Professor, his ass.

 

“I already did, though,” she says after Raihan flat out asks her. Raihan realizes she is five steps ahead of him, always has been and always will be.

 

He calls Leon.

 

 

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Raihan is fourteen years old and four battles into his Gym challenge when he realizes that he likes battling a whole lot.

 

He knew that. Of course he did. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t. But now he really, truly understands that he’s good at it and it makes him strong, makes him powerful. He likes making all the right calls, trusting his partners. Raihan wonders, sometimes, if his greatest and truest rival feels the same way. Raihan likes battling Leon the best of all, even when he loses.

 

Leon sweeps the Fighting-type gym without breaking a sweat. His eyes find Raihan, who is in the crowd. Of course Raihan is in the crowd. They raise their chins at each other. Raihan will go next, and Raihan will win, and Raihan will enjoy every second of it.

 

Maybe the battle is this: Raihan&Leon versus the rest of the world.

 

 

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“You’re sure nobody’s—“

 

“Yes,” Raihan says, shoving Leon lightly in the side. “I cleared everyone out myself.”

 

Leon frowns, but he can’t hide the delight in his eyes. “Right. Just feels weird, is all.”

 

Raihan snorts. “What, you want me to sing the Gym music? That gonna make you feel better, mate?”

 

Leon shoves back.

 

Maybe Raihan is getting ahead of himself, but he can already feel it.

 

They walk into the Gym side by side, from the same hallway. The rows and rows and rows of stands are dizzyingly empty, hollow. Raihan almost can’t comprehend it, how small he feels, how nervous Leon looks.

 

They end up in the center by habit. It is so different, more than Raihan feared it would be. There are no Gym uniforms—just Raihan in an old pair of sweats, his Pokeballs tucked into his pockets, and Leon in athletic shorts and a loose tee, hair pulled back. It is too quiet. Maybe he should sing, Raihan thinks, panicked.

 

Leon meets Raihan’s eyes, and Raihan is sure for half a second that Leon will change his mind. Will call the whole thing off. Instead, his tosses his head and turns around and counts the paces backwards. Raihan watches him go before copying, his heart in his throat.

 

Raihan fishes in his pockets. Comes up victorious.

 

The sandstorm kicks up. Leon spreads his arms, a god arrived home. Hammerlocke swallows them both in its stone belly, home of dragons, home of the storm-bringer.

 

And Raihan was right. It was never about Victor or anyone else. Never about being full of themselves, about the crowd or the titles or the media. It was always about the two of them.

 

Raihan&Leon.

 

Raihan is vicious with validation. He is laughing and he knows that Leon can see through the darkening sand, that Leon must be wondering, that Leon is still as strong and unbreakable on that pitch as mountains and oceans. And this time, he can hear Leon’s commands, can see the battle as it really is, and it is worse. It lights Raihan up, equal parts adrenaline and abject terror.

 

Raihan loses.

 

He shakes Leon’s hand and it feels like being announced as tamer of dragons and it feels like winning and it feels like piecing something back together.

 

Raihan takes a picture, then, he and Leon sand-swept and pressed together at the shoulders, wearing matching, savage smiles in an empty stadium. He captions it “0-11.” It gets more attention than anything Raihan’s posted all year.

 

Leon likes it at three in the morning. The implications of that do not escape Raihan, and he laughs into his pillow, real and open.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is seventeen years old and he is a Gym Leader and it feels good.

 

Leon is there to battle him in his very own Gym, all the dragons under Raihan’s belt shivering with anticipation, and it feels good, it feels right. He sees Leon before the battle because of course he does; it’s his Gym and he’ll do what he wants.

 

A reporter catches them just before that first battle. She asks: “How did you two go from such fierce rivals to the two most powerful trainers in Galar?”

 

Raihan laughs out loud and claps Leon’s shoulder, easy and affectionate. “Dragged each other,” he tells her. “Tooth and nail.”

 

 

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Four days after their battle in Hammerlocke, Leon wants to train something up in the wild area. Wants to catch Pokemon.


Raihan isn’t quite with him on that yet, but Leon is as animated as he’s been in weeks, and so Raihan agrees to go with him. Maybe he’s hoping that some of that spark will rub off on him. Maybe Leon is, too.

 

They land at the stairs, and Leon looks at Raihan, long and questioning. Raihan has a few of his team with him, just in case, but he finds that he can’t quite set foot in the tall grass yet. Not even with Leon at his side.

 

“You go down,” Raihan says, his throat stinging a little with it. “I’d rather watch.” Leon claps his shoulder once in acceptance and heads down that long staircase into the fields.

 

So Raihan watches. He leans forwards, arms crossed on the railing overlooking the stairs and the wild area and Leon. The breeze tugs at his bandana and his skin, the sky rolling blue over the lake. It is a beautiful, beautiful day, and even though it doesn’t feel quite right yet, it doesn’t feel as wrong as the days before it.

 

Raihan lets Flygon free with a flick of his wrist, breathes in and out a few times. Leon is small from this height, but Raihan can still make out every detail of his face, every sharp line of his silhouette. Cinderace is a red blur along the ground. The two of them weave in and out of the grass, and Raihan watches, half-hypnotized.

 

Leon is catching…something. Raihan can’t exactly tell. He wants to ask Rotom to go snap a few photos, so he knows for certain, but he doesn’t have the chance. The ball clicks shut. Leon goes to retrieve it, his steps practiced and sure.

 

And then Leon grins, fierce and wild and finally free, all the way up to Raihan. No Champion, no king.

 

Just Leon.

 

Oh, Raihan thinks. Shit.

 

There is no leash on Raihan. The tug that Raihan feels every time Leon moves is not gravity, is not the orbit of a prince around a king, a dragon around its master. It is something else entirely.


Leon has already moved on, turning back towards Charizard, towards the tall grass and the cliffs, so Raihan doesn’t need to try and school his face into a smile. Instead, he says “fuck.” Every other word in his (limited) vocabulary fails him. “Fuck,” he repeats, then adds one more for good measure. “Fuck.”

 

Flygon comes back to him, lands, tilts a curious head up at its trainer.

 

“Fuck,” the trainer tells it.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is seventeen years old and he is very, very new to social media. He has some pictures of himself battling in Hammerlocke that he thinks he’d like to post. In fact, he has too many. He is quickly finding that his problem is quantity, not quality: he thinks all twenty-two of them are really good.

 

Leon is sitting with his Rotom, looking through them. Raihan picks at some grass while he waits. Finally, Leon surfaces, triumphant.

 

“This one.”

 

Raihan considers the frame. His arms are spread wide, and Hammerlocke is a fortress, and the crowd is a blur, and he is grinning wide enough that his two sharp incisors are extended below his lip. Dangerous, a Gym Leader in the making.

 

Raihan posts it and he watches his follower count tick upwards. He tells Leon that he has good taste. Leon’s ears go red, but Raihan is just being honest.

 

 

—————————

 

 

The sky is watching Raihan tonight.

 

He has spent four days kind of, sort of, avoiding Leon. He holes up in Hulbury; Nessa teaches him how to fish and he hates it. Nessa lets Raihan be Raihan and doesn’t press and doesn’t prod and doesn’t even acknowledge the situation Raihan has gotten himself into, and he loves her for it.

 

He finds her on the dock tonight. The lighthouse is a warm pulse, and Nessa is the siren attached to it, hewn from stone. He stands next to her.


“The sea is anxious,” she says. Her voice is cool. Raihan looks out into the dark waves and senses nothing.

 

Until his eyes catch the horizon and his gaze travels up. The clouds are churning and moving too fast and the stars are blinking in and out between them. The wind ruffles them both. “I know what you mean,” Raihan responds.

 

Nessa flashes him a smile—a real one. She kisses him on the cheek. “I hope you do,” she says, rather cryptic.

 

Then, lightning-fast, she climbs the railing and flings herself into the ocean.

 

Raihan yelps and then remembers who he’s just been talking to. There’s a myriad of Pokemon on her, and also in the salty water, and also she’s Nessa, as much a sea creature as the partners she trains.

 

Maybe he does understand. He turns his back on the ocean.

 

 

—————————

 

 

Raihan is twenty and he is staring at Leon on a screen twice as tall as he is and he is thinking.

 

He and Leon are such intricate puzzle pieces, tied up in this immutable cross of Champion and Gym Leader, rivalry and too-intense battles, friendship and work. Or maybe, instead of a puzzle, it is like Jenga, with all the stacking blocks.

 

Raihan wants to know how many of the blocks can be removed, and which ones. Leon will be Champion forever. Raihan will be Gym Leader forever. That’s the way of things. Raihan wants to know what would happen if some of that came undone. Whether he and Leon could find one another in the wreckage, whether these roles they are so carefully, perfectly toeing are keeping them roped off from one another.

 

If—and it won’t be, but if—it’s someone else that dethrones Leon, then…Raihan can’t think about it too directly. It sets something deep under his skin on pins and needles.

 

 

————————

 

 

It is the middle of the night; Raihan is at Motostoke for no reason whatsoever. The sky seems less anxious here, Raihan thinks. He discards that thought immediately. Nessa rubs off on you that way.

 

When he sees that Leon has beat him to the punch, he’s almost unsurprised. The fallen king is sprawled in the middle of the stadium. Short sleeves and athletic shorts, no uniform in sight, hair loose and eyes turned to the open sky.

 

Raihan has half a mind to bolt before Leon sees him. But it’s as if Leon knows he’ll be there, head turning towards him, an invitation for Raihan to settle next to him on the concrete. Raihan, against all his better judgement, does so.

 

“Where have you been?” Leon asks, not unkind.

 

“Hulbury,” Raihan responds. “Fishing.”

 

Leon cocks his head. “Doesn’t sound like you.” Like he knows something. Raihan should have left when he had the chance.

 

“What have you been up to?” Raihan asks. It's unsubtle.

 

“Training,” Leon admits, and it’s so awfully familiar that Raihan’s jaw locks. “It’s been weird. I think I have my feet back under me, though.”

 

“Good,” Raihan says faintly.

 

Leon sits all the way up to be at eye level. His eyes are dark amber in this light. Raihan wants to be unconscious, wants to be in the awful black sea with Nessa.

 

“Why are you out here?” Leon asks, and Raihan is incredibly afraid to answer. The stadium is silent, open and unending; streaks of light are glossy on the floor. 

 

He bites his bottom lip until it hurts. “Could ask you the same.”

 

Leon’s eyes are so, so guarded. And still. Raihan can’t look at him.

 

“Waiting for someone,” Leon says, finally.

 

Raihan takes a deep, steadying breath that accomplishes nothing for him. “How come, then?”

 

“I miss him,” Leon answers, expression still so very closed. “And I think—“ Leon has the decency to look away from Raihan. “I’m not sure, but I think he wants to tell me something.”

 

Raihan is half expecting the floor to split open underneath him, to tilt out from under where he’s sitting and devour him whole. This is not Hammerlocke, belly of the dragon; this is territory Raihan isn’t quite sure how to operate in.

 

He has to be so careful. He can still run.

 

“And,” Raihan says, his voice choked on the way out. “Let’s say that he does. Want to.”

 

“Rai,” Leon half-whispers, half-warns, cautious.

 

Raihan finally just looks at him, gives up and looks. “Yes,” he says, hoping Leon just gets it, knowing Leon is the only one of them with the courage to move first. “Yeah. Whatever you’re asking. It’s a yes.”

 

Leon’s exhale is even, slow. Raihan thinks for one dizzying, awful moment that he has gotten every last thing wrong.

 

Leon kisses him. Just once, gentle and short and over as soon as it happens. And it’s so confident, so planned and simple, because that’s just how Leon operates, because Raihan runs too soon and Leon will always hold his ground, because Leon thinks a hundred times about everything he does before he does it, because at the end of the day, this is how the cards fall, again and again and again.

 

Raihan is lightheaded.

 

He’s close enough to Leon to see the second kiss coming—and to know that it isn’t planned. And he’s fast enough to lean back into it, and it’s the same kiss but Raihan processes it this time around. Processes enough to feel the tension roll off of his muscles in waves, his whole body light with it.

 

Leon is sitting there with half-lidded eyes and an embarrassed grin, and Raihan’s first instinct is to poke fun at him, but he can feel the flush in his own cheeks and decides against it. Leon raises an eyebrow at him and yeah, okay, fair; Raihan throws his head back in a sharp laugh. Leon leans over him to kiss away the last of it.

 

Raihan expects him to be intense, hungry, but this Leon is sated. Delirious. He steals chaste kisses over and over and over again, and Raihan sinks into it, easy. As Leon leans back on one arm and pulls Raihan with him, Raihan’s only giddy thought is about how annoying they are, kissing on the floor of Galar’s biggest stadium. Awful, both of them. Then Leon hums, content, and his other hand tangles in Raihan’s hair. Raihan realizes thinking is overrated.

 

They’re both strong. Raihan knows this and has always known this and yet he didn’t understand that they could hold each other up like this, that they could be so delicate with one another even as Raihan’s knuckles begin to ache from the force with which he digs his nails into Leon’s bicep, even as Leon supports both of their weights without flinching.

 

Eventually, long after Raihan is incoherent and Leon is winded, Raihan shoves good-naturedly at Leon’s shoulder as they pull apart and Leon elbows him right back. Leon whispers something about needing to be home. Raihan doesn’t actually know what he says in return, but Leon’s eyes spark with a challenge and then they’re racing.

 

They chase each other out of the stadium like they’re fourteen again. Leon takes the lead early by sprinting over the locker room benches, but Raihan makes up for lost time as he executes a rolling dive over the front desk. Leon’s hand fists in the back of Raihan’s sweatshirt as he runs, and Raihan is forced to slow, and Leon gifts him with one last kiss on the side of his neck before he uses all that momentum to sling himself out the door. He’s gone when Raihan emerges from the stadium, winded. In the air, somewhere, probably lost already.

 

Raihan doesn’t even bother looking for him. He buries his face in his hands and then says something that’s probably supposed to be “holy shit” and then raises a fist triumphantly at the sky and then feels like an idiot.

 

He feels like he could run home. But, he thinks, he really would like to try and keep himself in one piece at this point in his life, so he lets out Flygon and circles over Hammerlocke for entirely too long. After an unsteady landing outside his own door, he remembers all of his stuff is still at Nessa’s. He tries to make himself care. He can’t.

 

He posts a selfie and it’s stupid, grainy, dark, and it ruins his feed and he is never, ever, going to delete it. He’s in bed and he’s smiling, tongue sticking out between his two sharp teeth, and his bandana is pulled low over his forehead. He captions it with two exclamation points.

 

Leon is in the first four thousand people to like it. Raihan’s impressed.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is sixteen years old and he and Leon are in a den together. And maybe they’re stupid, maybe they’re overconfident, arrogant. Because it’s just the two of them, shoulder to shoulder in a horrifying landscape.

 

Raihan doesn’t feel arrogant. Raihan feels dangerous, with Leon at his side and smoke curling in the distance and an echoing roar in the shadows. Leon’s eyes are fire and gold and Raihan’s teeth are bared and nothing here could best the two of them, back-to-back. Maybe they are invincible like this. Probably, Raihan thinks. They probably are.

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is a dragon tamer. He was, for a while, the youngest Gym Leader in Galar. On top of that, he is now probably the third most powerful trainer in Galar. He’s tall. He has style. He has four million followers and counting.

 

So making a move on someone he likes shouldn’t be this fucking difficult. He’s already kissed Leon. Leon likes him. He trusts Leon more than anyone in the world.

 

But Raihan is just stewing, nervous, Leon curled into his side on the couch. There’s a movie playing; Raihan doesn’t know what the hell it is because Leon has been tracing circles against his bare hip for thirty-six minutes. For two of the thirty-six minutes, it was very sweet. For the remaining thirty-four, it has been torture.

 

Raihan sighs out loud, tense, before remembering Leon can probably feel that. Leon is too attentive, always has been. He sits up, leaving Raihan’s side achingly cold. “You alright?”

 

Leon has put himself right where Raihan wants him. And Raihan is a coward, but he recognizes an opportunity when he sees one. His heart is beating too fast to reconsider. He finds the confidence to swing a leg over Leon, sliding into his lap, and despite being a good half-foot taller, he fits nicely here. Leon is watching him very carefully, eyebrow almost raised, lips almost turned up.

 

“Hey,” Raihan tries. Casual.

 

“Hey yourself,” Leon says, and Raihan can already tell it’s over for him. He has never heard Leon’s voice do that and he kind of hopes it never does anything else ever again.

 

Raihan’s hands are curled loosely over Leon’s chest, and Leon wraps a hand around one of Raihan’s wrists and lifts Raihan’s arm to his neck, a question in his eyes.

 

Raihan could really, truly cry. Raihan wants to tell all six million (and counting) followers that he, Raihan, is on Leon’s lap, because even after all those fucking battles, Raihan has never felt Leon’s entire attention on him like this, laser focused. He curls his fingers into the hair at the base of Leon’s neck, unsure all over again.

 

Leon is a gentleman and also an asshole. He sits with that perfect, calm expression on his face and waits for Raihan to move in. Fine. Raihan is whipped, isn’t he? He cups Leon’s jaw, thinking Leon is waiting on something sweet and heavy, something deeper than two nights ago in Motostoke, but still gentle.

 

He finds out immediately that he is incorrect.

 

Leon’s mouth is hot and precise and his hands are desperate, catching on Raihan’s ribcage, slipping underneath the sweatshirt and down over the insides of his thighs, like Leon has planned this route before he executed it, like Leon has thought about this, and the whole situation just isn’t fair to Raihan. He makes a noise that has Leon grinning against his lips.

 

Raihan hooks a hand under Leon’s chin to push him back, pretends he isn’t shaking. “Cocky,” he mutters.

 

Leon’s smile is wide and red, unabashed. “You’ve always liked it,” he says, and fuck Leon, honestly, fuck all those years on the throne that made him devastating and confident. Fuck the fact that he said ‘always.’ Raihan is so damn frustrated by it all that he has no choice but to kiss Leon again. Leon is laughing through it.

 

Fine. Fine, then. Raihan lets his incisors catch a little bit, sink in, and Leon goes perfectly still, his grip on Raihan’s hips tightening. 

 

Raihan sits back, grinning. Making sure his teeth are showing. Making sure his expression reads as ‘who’s laughing now’ and not ‘holy shit.’

 

“Little dragon,” Leon murmurs, eyes a little dark. He lifts one hand, running a thumb over the sharp point of Raihan’s incisor, his nails trailing down Raihan’s inner thigh. And that’s it; Raihan’s brain checks out, ruined for anyone and anything else. Leon studies him. He taps his thumb twice against Raihan’s tooth—Raihan’s fang, maybe—and whispers, “use these,” his pupils blown.

 

Raihan changes his mind. Now he’s ruined.

 

Well. If Raihan’s going, he’s taking Leon with him. He is as light as air when he lets his grin slip into something unchecked, wild, when he brackets Leon against the back of the couch. Leon’s next inhale is uneven.

 

“You sure?” Raihan asks. A promise. A taunt.

 

It goes like this: both of them are too desperate to be slow, too desperate to tease for long. There are multiple moments in which Raihan is convinced that he is going to die. Raihan is louder, but Leon is more sensitive. It’s bright and warm and Raihan cannot stop smiling, to the point that he has the sense to be embarrassed about it in between curses, to the point that Leon finds humor in it and so Raihan bares his teeth in a counterattack. Leon calls him ‘Rai’ and then ‘little dragon’ one more time, in a cut-short laugh, and finally ‘Raihan’ in a smooth, low, gasp. Unbelievably, Raihan survives this.

 

Raihan drops a few kisses in Leon’s hair afterwards, Leon dozing off on his chest. The bruises littering Leon’s neck and shoulder are directly in Raihan’s line of sight.

 

And it’s just that his fucking cheeks hurt from smiling so much. But—tooth and nail, huh?

 

 

————————

 

 

Raihan is fifteen years old and he is on the ground, air knocked out of him. The Champion of Galar stands above him, face contorted with his effort not to laugh.

 

“Next time?” Leon tries.

 

Because: Raihan told Leon that if he had a Machoke, he could sweep Leon easily, and so Leon took him right out into the wild area to find one. And Raihan is having a little bit of trouble catching the Machoke he bragged so heavily about.

 

Raihan just swings for Leon’s hand and hauls himself up. He’ll reach Leon. Leon will drag him to the top if he has to.

 

There is a confident set to Raihan’s eyes and mouth as he stands, and he watches Leon try the expression on, practice it himself. It looks nice on him. He looks Champion-esque, wearing that face.

 

See? Raihan&Leon. Neither of them know how to stop giving to each other.

 

 

————————

 

 

Two weeks later, Raihan sends a picture of the two of them to the Gym Leader group chat. It’s deliberate, Raihan’s arm slung over Leon’s shoulder, pressing a kiss to his cheek, Leon’s hand tangled in the front of Raihan’s sweatshirt. Raihan won’t ever post it publicly, but he and Leon each have a very slight flair for the dramatic, and this is much easier than breaking the news a million separate times.

 

They get three responses in the next minute. There is a satisfied ‘nice.’ from Piers, a couple of question marks from Milo, and an eight-second audio attachment of Nessa’s unbroken shriek. Later, Kabu reminds everyone that the group chat is for official Gym business only, and Bea, of all people, calls him an old man.

 

Hop takes the news surprisingly well. He tells Raihan to be careful. Raihan catches Zamazenta eyeing him from the corner of the room and decides he’s just going to nod.

 

Sonia says, “you’re welcome.” Even though she didn’t do anything, really. Raihan loves her.

 

 

————————

 

(There will be a video of Raihan, flinging a Pokeball as hard as he possibly can at Leon’s shoulder, captioned “caught the sun today.” There will be a battle tower and Raihan will frequent it and the battles will not always end in chaste handshakes. There will be tea in the mornings and anniversary dinners and one gift—an apple, a dragon—that makes Raihan’s heart stumble in his chest, even after all these years.)

 

(There will be fights, sometimes, but Raihan knows bad weather intimately.)

 

(There will be Leon, tucked against Raihan’s chest in the middle of the night, skin to skin. Half asleep, Raihan will wonder how they did it. How they made it. He will wonder this out loud without realizing it. Leon will press a kiss to his collar and say, “the rules changed.”)

 

(Raihan will love him for it.)