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Pokémon Retold: Sword

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Never had Galar been taken by such storm.

They were the most intimidating of any regional Pokémon League out there. The theatrics, the stadiums, the intense security, the reporters, the celebratory nature of it all; there was no escaping it. Galar’s League, both Minor and Major Leagues, were ruthless. Galarians had a saying. “Victory of the mind and of the body.” It meant that half of any League battle was in the mind more so than on the battlefield. The spectacle and drama of it all, of course, meant that challengers became something of celebrities as well. The ones that pushed past the fourth gym, anyway. Those that made it to the eighth were world-renowned at times. Just as quickly as they came into public favor, they could fall out of it, as well… say the wrong thing, wear something mildly insulting, speak in a distasteful tone at their pokémon… The public court of opinion could be harsh and random at times. Such fame could weigh heavy on younger challengers. It was why many required endorsements, or written permission from a higher-up in the League, in order to participate in the Major Leagues. Most didn’t dare even reach for the Leagues until they were at least sixteen.

Leon, along with a handful of other challengers known as Piers, Raihan, Sonia, and Nessa, had been notable exceptions. Their endorsements were nearly flukes, even. Leon, at just ten years old, had been endorsed by Motostoke’s gym leader, Kabu, who still did not truly understand Galar’s culture surrounding the League. He had moved from Hoenn, a region where it was standard for children between ten and twelve to leave on a journey with pokémon. Amused and enchanted by the boisterous kid’s liveliness, Kabu had offered him a Charmander and a recommendation, to the abject horror of his parents. Piers, eleven at the time, had been mysteriously endorsed by one of Chairman Rose’s head League staff. Sonia and Nessa had both been endorsed at the same time by Hulbury’s then-gym leader, a kindly woman who saw potential in the two girls where others didn’t (but rumors speculated she disliked Professor Magnolia, Sonia’s legal guardian at the time, and had given the endorsement as a backhanded mockery). Questionable as the circumstances were, once an endorsement is given, it was rarely retracted, and into the rat race they went.

Leon easily swept every gym he approached. He never had to try a second time and he never even relied on healing items. The bond between him and his pokémon was unmistakable, but more than that, Leon’s blithe lack of nerves likely determined many of his victories. Leon was a confident and charismatic boy. The roar of the crowd, the blaring microphones, and recording Rotom Drones never fazed him. His boundless determination was unmatched by almost all the other challengers that season. By the time Leon reached the championships, there were just seven other gym challengers remaining, and with several of his opponents being gym challengers he had already felled in his travels, Leon swiftly navigated the tournament and booted the existent champion as if he had never been there at all.

At first, the popularity had come as a shock to the youngest champion to have ever graced the Galarian Pokémon League. Suddenly, everything from school to simple socialization became a challenge, but he lavished the attention, thrived under it, even. If there was one thing Leon had always been good at, even in his younger years, it was putting on a show. He adopted the ridiculous crimson cape and a bright red uniform and over time, his uniform might have changed, but he always kept that cape. Something about its heft across his shoulders felt as if it kept him grounded, made him feel as if he was doing exactly what he needed to be doing.

Even for those that blossom in the harsh spotlight of public attention, though, there are consequences. One has to take a careful look under the microscope to spot them, but they exist all the same. For example, nobody knows when Champion Leon quit going home after he finally was old enough to quit school. One day, his family just became keenly aware that their superstar son only visited on massive holidays or birthdays. They couldn’t tell you why he had stopped, either; they didn’t know about his late nights spent crashed at Raihan’s place in Hammerlocke, surrounded by various friends from the League, or about just how they partied behind closed doors. With stadiums constantly shouting his name and reporters begging for his attention, Champion Leon thirsted for a deeper connection he didn’t know how to get. He partied away his worries and battled away his frustrations. That wasn’t to say he regretted where his life had led him, oh no… whether that was part of his problem or not was hard to say, though.

All across the other regions, people would tune in to watch their favorite Galarians battle in a fantastic public spectacle. Avid viewers only saw the glamour and the sensationalist headlines talking about their favorite celebrities and their dedicated pokémon partners. None could have any idea they were feeding into the fierce nature of Galar’s Pokémon League, and thusly, Macro Cosmos. The conglomerate had sunk its fingers deep into just about every sector of Galar’s economy. Their chairman, Rose Myles Foster, had inherited control to the entirety of the company from his father and his inexperience showed. It was his excellent staff and even more skilled secretary, Oleana, that kept it from getting spun out of control. Like a kid in a candy store, Chairman Rose enacted eccentric new plans and policies during his early years. It wasn’t that he was unintelligent, just that he understood facts presented to him by books, but he had no understanding of the real world, thanks to living his life in the cozy pretentiousness of the rich Foster family.

His eccentricities were often harmless, though, and Oleana was always happy to inform him of his mistakes. Having taken her in to be his secretary after finding her impoverished on the streets, Oleana felt as if she owed everything to Chairman Rose. She flourished under guidance from skilled higher-ups in Macro Cosmos and under his watchful eye. The two became thick as thieves, and soon, Oleana felt as if she was constantly having to yank his leash to keep the company afloat. He didn’t mind her reprimands and enjoyed having someone so close to him. Oleana grew frighteningly protective of him, but like an unobservant child, Chairman Rose laughed it off entirely.

Indeed, Galar was a beautiful, modernistic region, heralded for their unique Dynamax phenomenon and the glorious, massive stadiums. Unfortunately, Galar had loose threads all over the place, just waiting to be pulled, be it the effect the gym challenge had on its own citizens, the blind eye so many had turned to Macro Cosmos, or concerns over where the Dynamax phenomenon even came from. Nobody wanted to pull them, but if they ever were to be pulled, nobody could know when the unraveling would stop. Galar, one of the proudest and largest regions in the world, was a façade waiting to crumble.

Never had the region been taken by such storm.

Charizard huffed as its feet touched the ground. Powerful wings beat against the wind to keep it steady until it was supported properly by the earth below. Leon’s hands had been coiled around its horns, while he had sat safely between the Charizard’s shoulder blades, his legs dangling past the creature’s neck. Charizard shook his head and glanced back at Leon impatiently. Leon chuckled in amusement and hopped off the Charizard’s back, gently patting his muzzle, and thanked it. Without a second thought, he raised a Poké Ball to recall it so he could keep a low profile. Or attempt to. Being the champion, it was a little difficult to keep hidden, and to be honest, Leon enjoyed the attention and fame. Being surprised by alarmingly observant fans was a treat he guiltily relished.

Not that he thought there may be any there, however; he was standing just outside of his family’s home in Postwick. Tall hedges and a long, winding walkway with a steel gate at the end kept most nosy fans at bay. Charizard had landed him just in front of the door, so he hoped there were none this close to his home, anyway. He was greeted by a noisy Wooloo skidding across the grass toward him as he approached the door to the house. The Wooloo gently headbutted his leg to say, “hello!” Chuckling, Leon paused and patted her head. It was Hop’s Wooloo. Well, really, it was the entire family’s Wooloo, but she was closest with and Leon had gotten her for Hop.

Leon issued a short series of three knocks on the door and then flicked the knob. Upon entering the house, he called out for his family. His mother and father both gave a startled reply, but there was no reply from any Hop to be heard. “We’ll be right down!” his mother called.

As if sensing his next question, “Hop’s away at Wedgehurst right now; he was helpin’ with the tourists down that way!” his father added.

“Alright, I’ll go make myself at home then,” Leon called up cheekily. He went into a pristine, almost unrecognizable living room, and flopped on a blue cloth chair. When he had stayed at home last (not that he could tell you how long ago that had been), the living room had constantly been in a state of busy disarray, thanks to his and Hop’s obsession with televised pokémon battles. There would often be myriad red solo cups scattered across every available furnished surface in the room and blankets and pillows would end up on the floor, bunched in front of the TV set like a fort. Instead, the room appeared untouched. Soft white carpet, only lightly brushed with aged stains here and there, covered the entirety of the room’s floor, while a pastel blue couch lined the back wall. Two recliners to match were aligned to each adjacent corner. A medium-sized flatscreen projected at a slight angle from the wall. The screen was blank and he could barely see his reflection in the inky surface.

His parents soon joined him. His father set a couple of mugs of coffee on the table on square Yamper coasters, and his mother moved over to hug him tightly. Leon happily obliged and curled his arms around her. He squeezed jokingly, knowing his strength. She huffed and laughed, “Calm down Brutus!”

“Why couldn’t you have called first?” his father complained. “Hop’s away at Wedgehurst, he’s goin’ to be so upset he missed you comin’ home.”

“Oh, I was plannin’ to be here tomorrow, see,” Leon said smoothly. Really, his reasoning for avoiding Hop was a lot more complex than that. “It’s a bit busy, bein’ champion and all.”

His mother rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, Lee, we know. We’re very, very proud. Now, what brings you today?”

“Well, to be honest…” Leon leaned forward and put a hand to his chin. “I’ve been thinkin’ about somethin’ lately and I can’t seem to figure it out. Hop’s friend, Gloria, I keep hearin’ about her and all the cool stuff she tells Hop, and I even met her a few times… She really seems like she’d be a good fit for the gym challenge, you know? Seems to really have her head on her shoulders straight.”

“But?” his father asked, giving him a knowing look.

“But… I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable with Hop gettin’ an endorsement—”

“That’s why you showed up while Hop was out,” his mother muttered.

“—because he just takes everything so to heart, you know? I feel like he’d have a really hard time findin’ his stride.”

“You’ve so little faith in him,” his father remarked. He took a sip of coffee; his hand obscured most of the Boltund image printed on the side of the dark blue mug. “He’s your brother. You’re the champion. Why aren’t you more willing to give him a chance? You could really give him some pointers and help him out, you know.” The way his father always spoke of Hop was almost… disturbing, to Leon. It was as if he wanted to mold Hop into a perfect mirror image of Leon. Every time that subject came up, Leon bristled a little under his cape, and he remembered part of why he so rarely came home.

“And you want to endorse his best friend but not him? My, Lee, I think that would hurt a lot more than anythin’ any random trainer or challenger could do,” his mother said, shaking her head. She sighed and looked at him in the eyes. “We’re very proud of you and Hop too. But Hop idolizes you. He just wants a chance to prove he’s got some worth. We know he’s got worth without provin’ anythin’, but he doesn’t. We’re honestly strugglin’ to keep him busy, and you know how he gets when he’s bored. Why don’t you just endorse him?”

Yeah, Leon did know how his brother acted when he was bored. He was prying, irritating, and somehow also became very depressing to be around. He would just mope because he had nothing to do, it was so strange to Leon; the champion loved it when he had nothing to do! His favorite pastime was sipping a cold drink and talking for hours on end with friends, second only to battling, maybe. He sighed and looked back at them without meeting their eyes. “Maybe I’ll just wait to endorse them both next gym challenge season,” he said a little weakly. They had no actual power over him, of course, and he knew that. Leon just enjoyed their approval. Disappointment was foreign to him and the idea of it alone was enough to put a bitter taste on the end of his tongue.

“Fine,” his mother huffed. “Now can we talk about literally anything except the gym challenge?” She scooped up the TV remote from the ornate coffee table. “There’s always—”

“I’m really sorry,” Leon interrupted her, “but I can’t stay much longer. I just really needed a quick chin-wag to get my thoughts clear.” He had said all that a little too quickly, he knew; he just didn’t want to stay home too long… He loved Hop, but he didn’t want to run into him while this all was fresh on his mind.

“We understand, son,” his father said and smiled warmly after him. His mother nodded after him, but Leon couldn’t quite shake the nagging feeling she was unhappy with him, nor the quieter, guiltier thought that she was right to be. He thanked them for their time and left the room, heading for the front door.

He felt even more guilty for wanting to push back Hop and Gloria’s endorsements for yet another season. It was only three months, but he had no way of knowing that he would be willing to do it that time, either. He thought that perhaps he should do something else nice for them to soften the blow from him refusing endorsements again. Maybe, he thought, he’d give them a pokémon they could bond with in preparation for the next gym challenge season! Maybe then he would feel much more confident about sending them off with recommendations next season…

He snapped his fingers. “That’s the perfect idea!” he said loudly, not too sure if it was a statement of fact or an attempt to further convince himself, as he shut the door to the house behind him.

“What’s a perfect idea, Lee? Also, you’re here!”

Leon looked up and saw a thin figure racing toward him. He blinked and suddenly the breath left his lungs as arms tightly latched around his torso. He laughed nervously and looked down at Hop. His younger brother was just so energetic… not to mention fast! Not that Leon himself was laid-back by any means, but he admired Hop’s enthusiasm. Then he felt that distasteful pang of guilt again. It was always so prevalent whenever he came home. He hardly ever felt bad anywhere else, but at home, the negative feelings loved to bubble to the surface. It frustrated him to no end that he didn’t know why… Putting on a confident face and tone of voice anyway, he said, “Yes, yes, I’m here. And I was just thinkin’ that tomorrow I’ll visit again, and tomorrow… well, I might have somethin’ for you and your friend.”

Hop slowly let go and raised a brow as he looked up at Leon. He had puffy black hair that gave off an almost purple sheen in bright sunlight, much like Leon himself. His golden eyes glowed brightly in excitement. “What do you mean…?”

“Tomorrow,” Leon started and drew in a slow breath to up the tension, an act of showmanship he had picked up in his fifteen long years as reigning champion, “I’ll be bringin’ you lot a pokémon.” He abruptly started tickling Hop and shoved him a little. Hop began to sputter and push him away.

“A pokémon? For real?!” Hop exclaimed once he was free, completely ignorant of every other detail of the conversation thus far. “You’re goin’ to bring pokémon for us?! Like, one for battlin’? Not a Wooloo?”

“What other kind? You’ve already got a Wooloo,” Leon snorted in amusement. He ruffled Hop’s hair and adjusted his cape. A perfect show yet again, Champion, he thought to himself. “Alright, now while you ruminate over that for the night, I’ve got some business to tend to. I’ll see you tomorrow, alright, little bro?”

“You got it, Lee! I’ll definitely make sure we’re ready!”

“Good,” Leon snickered as Hop bolted into the house. The front door waved wildly behind him, as it was forgotten in Hop’s fervor. Leon shook his head and closed the door for them. Then he tossed out his Charizard again. The pokémon calmly looked back at him. After a second of that, he narrowed his eyes at Leon, who frowned back at him. “What?”

Charizard chuffed and shook his head. Fifteen years of being at this pokémon’s side had taught him just about what every action and sound meant. Right then, Charizard was chiding him, like a misbehaving child. Leon planted his hands on his hips and indignantly puffed out his chest.

“Oi, I’m the champion here,” Leon reminded him in a playful tone. “I just don’t think they’re ready yet…”

Another disapproving look. If Charizard could talk, he could have almost guaranteed there would have been a dry, “Really?” following that stare.

“Alright, so I’m guilty and I’ll give ‘em a pokémon, but I don’t think they’re ready and that’s final,” Leon insisted. Rolling his eyes at his trainer, Charizard leaned down and spread his wings wide in a gesture that told Leon to board him again. Leon obliged and patted him on the side of his neck. “Thank you, buddy. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

“Exhibition or not, Leon, your pristine record is about to end—when I beat you here today!”

“You know I don’t lose battles, Raihan! Charizard—DYNAMAX!”

Gloria couldn’t stay still in her seat. It was always a treat whenever Raihan and Leon battled—which, to be fair, was quite often even outside of the gym challenge seasons—due to just how intense both were. Raihan had an almost feral air about him once he got into battle, and Leon had such unbidden confidence. Though she was miles and miles away from where they were really battling in Wyndon, as she clutched the little Rotom Phone in her hands, she swore she could feel the crackling of the tension from the two in the air. Of course, she was rooting for Raihan. Leon won all the time anyway, and his smug speeches following his victories made her want to gag. Champion time, champion time, champion time… he needs new material.

A harsh slam! pulled her nose from the device. Throwing a look over her shoulder and the back of the couch, she saw Hop rubbing his head and slowly closing the door behind him. She supposed he had run into the doorframe. Giggling, she raised a brow at him. “Everythin’ okay over there, Rapidash?” He always moved so fast. She had known Hop for as long as she could remember, even before he started using the goofy nickname. She wished he’d have just stuck with his real name of Zane. She thought it was a great name.

Besides, Leon had given him the nickname of ‘Hop,’ and although Hop himself had laughed it off, Gloria had recognized it for what it was. Hop had tried to style his hair after Leon had begun to adopt the long, stylized approach to his own hair. He had come up with something… unique, to be sure. His hair had ended up looking like the bulbs of a plant called the common hop. Leon had, bizarrely, recognized the resemblance somehow, and started calling him Hop. Hop clung to the nickname his brother had struck him with without even asking for much clarification on its origin. Gloria had decided to look up said plant and was appalled to find it was a primary ingredient in… alcohol and in some cases, marijuana. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell Hop about that. Leon had thought himself hilarious for coming up with it. Figures he’d find his brother’s ignorance tickling…

“Haha, very funny! But hey, you better hurry up and come with me!” Hop exclaimed, wrenching her from the momentary train of thought. He deftly rounded the corner of the couch and gestured for her to get up. “Oh, you’re watchin’ Lee and Raihan’s exhibition,” he said, “well, just record it! That’s what I do with all of Lee’s matches. But come on, come on!”

Gloria’s mother had now entered the room. She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “Now Hop, what on Earth’s got you so riled up?”

 “Oh!” Hop whirled around to face her. “My bad, Miss Burns. You see, uh, well… My brother Lee said he’s goin’ to give us both a pokémon today! If that’s alright…?”

Gloria practically fell over the back of the sofa trying to climb over it to reach him and her mother. She grabbed Hop’s hands and made him face her. “Really? We’re—we’re getting a pokémon today?” She had all but missed the detail that it would be coming from Leon. Even if she had noticed it, she would have still been ecstatic. She may have not been one of Leon’s drooling fans, but getting her very own first pokémon was still a tantalizing thought. She had been aching for one for years, but had been repeatedly told no, that she had to wait until she was older, and was headed out on her gym challenge. “There’s no point in getting a pokémon just so it can waste away around the house,” her father’s words echoed in her mind.

Gloria’s mother gasped. “Champion Leon, you mean? Givin’ you two a pokémon?”

“Yeah!” Hop beamed back, encouraged by her excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, he grabbed Gloria’s hands back, and bounced a little in place. Gloria became acutely aware of how tightly he was holding her, of how close they were. It was so pleasant… “So, Gloria, you comin’?”

“I can’t believe it, the Champion of Galar to endorse my daughter!” Gloria’s mother was starting to tear up. Gloria’s cheeks flushed pink as she realized her mother was likely about to get very, very emotional. Her reaction was understandable, but so, so embarrassing… “Gloria, honey, you can’t say no to that! You’ve been wantin’ a pokémon for so long anyway. You better get a move on! Get your phone, and your bag!”

Hop nodded almost violently in agreement. “Yes! Come on, Gloria, get that bag of yours and let’s go! No time for dallyin’!”

“Okay, okay!” Gloria laughed and scurried upstairs to find her backpack. She was already dressed for the day, and just wanted to retrieve the bag so she had something to hold her phone, keys, and anything else she might want to take with her. Her mind was swimming. A pokémon! All her own! While that thought itself was exciting, she was really salivating at the possibility of something even more precious: an endorsement for the Galarian Major Pokémon League. While some people did keep the odd Yamper or Wooloo as pets, everybody knew what they were really made for. Battling! Pokémon—and people, of course—loved to battle! They lived for it! She was absolutely elated at the idea of getting a pokémon of her own to travel Galar with, striving against the gym leaders of each of the major cities.

Once back downstairs, Hop began to laugh hysterically. “What?” she demanded. “What you laughin’ at me for?”

“That bag!” Hop rasped. “That thing looks like it’ll pull you to the floor!”

Gloria rolled her eyes. The bag had belonged to her father during the gym challenge he had embarked upon during his teen years. He no longer used it, considering he was away in Sinnoh, studying beneath their most esteemed professor. The bag was massive, but at least it had room for everything she could ever want to fit inside it. “So, we goin’ or what?” she asked teasingly.

“We got to go get Lee from Wedgehurst Station first, he’s rubbish with directions and says his Charizard’s tired,” Hop said as he wiped amused tears from his eyes. “C’mon, the sooner we get him, the sooner we get a pokémon!”

“Good luck, you too!” Gloria’s mother almost wailed. Gloria waved goodbye exasperatedly and ducked out the door in a heartbeat.

As soon as their feet hit the dirt and they no longer had to worry about her mother overhearing them, Gloria and Hop started chattering to one another. They were more excited and louder than a whole flock of Rookidee on an early Sunday morning.

“I’m so glad to get away from her. She was goin’ to start cryin’ in short order. My mum is in love with your brother, and it’s awful,” Gloria groaned with a smile tugging at her lips. Hop snorted ungraciously and then covered his face.

“That’s so not funny, why am I laughin’,” he rasped.

“Because it is funny and it’s horrible!” Gloria snickered back. “Anyway, how’d this come about?”

“Well, he apparently visited yesterday while I was away at Wedgehurst,” Hop said. “And as I was comin’ back from helpin’ at the station, he just started talkin’ to me and was like, ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to come back tomorrow. Want a pokémon?’ Of course, I said yes!”

“Did he happen to say what they were? Maybe a Yamper, or a Skwovet? Rookidee would be awesome!” Gloria beamed. “Corviknight is just the most majestic pokémon!”

“Corviknight?” Hop questioned in genuine confusion. “Thought you said Rookidee?”

“Don’t be silly, come off it!” Gloria laughed. For the champion’s younger brother, Hop had a mind about as retentive as a wet sponge. “Corviknight evolves from Corvisquire, which evolves from Rookidee.”

“Right, right! Sorry, blond moment there I think,” Hop apologized and rubbed the back of his head nervously.

It wasn’t long before they arrived at Wedgehurst. Gloria had almost wished the length between the two towns was longer… it had gotten harder and harder to see Hop alone in recent years. He worked odd part-time jobs often in Wedgehurst, and otherwise, loved to spend a lot of his free time analyzing Leon’s recorded battles. They were well into their late teens now, both of them seventeen, and the days of playing in the dirt in Postwick were well past them. She had to admit, she hoped they would get endorsed by Leon for more than just wanting to travel and learn to battle. It would give her and Hop something to do together again, something she felt they had been missing for quite a while as they grew older. She feared they were growing apart. This would be the perfect opportunity to rekindle their fading friendship, she thought.

Yet, the two towns might as well have been one town, seeing as they were separated by just a short walk down an uninhabited route. You could practically throw a stone from one to the other, but Wedgehurst stubbornly remained outside of Postwick’s jurisdiction, and was home to its very own train station, a Pokémon Center, a clothing shop—anything one could need, just about. So, she didn’t have long to be alone with him. Especially since, once they drew closer to Wedgehurst, they found that its typically plain streets were brimming with excitement.

A brilliant glow emanated from the center of town. It threw orange and red lights across the gathered crowd. The fire being blown sky-high was of course from Leon’s Charizard. Leon himself was standing ahead of the formidable Fire-type, striking his unmistakable pose. Everyone nearby, excluding Gloria, mimicked him, throwing two fingers into the air. Hop took it just a step farther, however, showing how he had perfected the pose over the years. Gloria cagily crossed her arms and fought an eye roll. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself. She may not have liked Leon, but his rabid fans would be appalled if they noticed her disdain for him.

“Galar has got the strongest trainers in all of the world!” Leon was bellowing across the crowd. “And I want to keep it that way! So, as always, I want all of you to train as hard as you can! Come after me in the Major League if you can! We can keep showing the rest of the world how to have a champion time!”

Raucous cheering followed. Gloria flinched a little from the sheer noise and curled her lip at his closing statement. Champion time. Always with the champion time. She had seen Leon and his fans that seemed to converge from the woodwork whenever he was around before, but that didn’t mean she ever started enjoying the crowds he drew, nor the asinine speeches he gave. They were noisy and people acted so strangely around him. Fans practically fell at his feet. Could none of them see his conceited nature like she could? She sighed. Even if any could, she supposed it wasn’t like they could parade it. They had to keep silent, just as she did.

“Oh, and if it isn’t my biggest fan!” Leon locked eyes on Hop and casually strode over to his little brother. He ruffled Hop’s hair and winked at him. “You’ve grown taller, little boy.”

“Lee! You just saw me yesterday!” Hop protested, moving Leon’s hand off his head. Leon’s Charizard landed behind Leon and appeared to be watching the gathered crowd carefully. His tail swayed irritably. Gloria acutely became aware of how the Charizard never seemed relaxed. It always seemed so tense and anxious… Scowling at Leon, she could only imagine why.

Leon turned his attention back to the gathered Wedgehurst mob. “Thank you, thank you, everyone! Now, I’ve got some family business to attend to, so I’ll be seein’ you later!” He waved the people goodbye, then whispered something to his Charizard. And with that, Leon, Hop, and Gloria began to walk back to Postwick. Leon’s Charizard brought up the rear, following much more slowly.

“Oh, Champion Leon, please don’t go just yet! Please let me have an autograph!” A feminine voice practically screeched behind them. Gloria heard Leon’s Charizard growl and turned just in time to see it flare its wings wide and stand tall over the woman that had decided to try to follow them. Gloria couldn’t see the woman or Charizard’s face from where she was standing, but she was quite certain the woman’s eyes were bulging from intimidation, and that Charizard had embers curling from the edge of its muzzle.

“Charizard, easy,” Leon said sternly. “No autographs today, I’m afraid. Really, I’ve got to be home for a while.” He sounded almost… tired…

Charizard’s throat rumbled to emphasize his trainer’s point.

“Understood!” the woman choked. She pattered away back into Wedgehurst’s borders.

“Man, Charizard is so cool,” Hop said breathlessly. “And so protective!”

Leon didn’t seem to have much of a response for that. Gloria looked up at him with a bit of a frown, wondering why he had nothing to say about such a comment. Leon’s expression was suddenly very unreadable and stoic. She shook her head and silently followed, listening in as Hop and Leon talked a bit here and there. But even Hop didn’t seem to be able to carry a conversation with him. Leon always had lots to say in public, but Gloria always found it extremely hard to actually talk to him in the few times she had met him in private with Hop. He was so… unyielding… It was part of what made him so frustrating to her, too. She loved Hop as much as any one half of a childhood friendship would love the other, and watching Leon unabashedly brush off Hop’s enthusiasm could be maddening.

Back at Hop’s front yard, however, Leon’s bright and sunny persona reappeared. He joked a little with them both before chucking three Poké Balls from his belt to the grassy terrain. Hop and Gloria both gazed in wonder at the three creatures that emerged. Gloria abruptly forgot about her gripes with Leon. She had only ever seen these kinds of pokémon on TV!

Hop had never seen pokémon like these in the flesh before! He had heard and read about them, of course, and seen their evolved forms in matches on TV. They were incredibly exclusive to Galar itself. Sobble, Grookey, and Scorbunny; the deceptively adorable pre-evolutions to the monstrous Inteleon, Rillaboom, and Cinderace respectively. Hop had done obsessive amounts of reading on them. He knew they were selectively bred by Galar’s military in the past, and had only recently, in the last ten years or so, been allowed use by average Galar citizens. They were incredibly loyal, powerful, and intelligent pokémon, all three of them.

The Sobble in front of him quickly found its way to a small pond that had formed in their yard, where it settled in and began to lazily paddle about. The Grookey scampered over to the tree overlooking the pond and clambered high up its branches. It grabbed hold of a stick with a few leaves clinging to it, and waved it about happily, spinning in circles. The Scorbunny rapidly tapped its powerful feet against the dirt of the battlefield in their yard, and then started to jog in place. Jogging quickly turned to a full-blown run and small embers kicked up behind the pokémon’s paws. Nobody was all that concerned, as the flames quickly died out.

Hop copped a smirk and crossed his arms. He looked at Gloria. “Why don’t you go ahead and choose? I’ve got my Wooloo already, after all.”

“Sobble,” Gloria practically spat before he had finished telling her that. “Sobble. It’s so cute. Please.”

Leon laughed and gestured for her to head over to the pokémon. “Sobble’s all yours, Gloria.”

Gloria gleefully bounced over to the pond, where Sobble gave a start from her sudden movements. Gloria extended an arm slowly toward it, and the Sobble warily moved closer to inspect her hand.

“You goin’ to choose now, Hop?” Leon asked.

“Of course! I’m goin’ to go with Grookey!” He still could hardly believe this was happening at all. The gift of a pokémon communicated an unspoken promise of an endorsement, he was sure of it. The idea of finally getting to traverse Galar was almost mind-numbing. Finally, he would get to chase down Leon! He’d make sure, one day, Leon faced him at Wyndon Stadium!

“Oh, you little git, you tricked me!” Gloria gave Hop a disbelieving smile. “You wanted me to pick first so you could get the starter that’s super-effective on mine!”

“You got it!” Hop snickered as he got closer, urging the Grookey to come down from the tree. It earnestly bounced down the trunk and landed on his shoulder, where it accidentally jabbed him with its favorite stick a few times. “Hey, ow—”

Scorbunny looked about the yard with a bit of confusion, and then its gaze settled on Leon himself and the massive Charizard standing at his side. It seemed to cower a little bit as Charizard leaned down to sniff its ears. “Haha, come now Charizard, you’re scarin’ it,” Leon said, walking over to the little Scorbunny. He scooped it up in his arms and scratched between its two ears. Its left foot began to kick rhythmically against his chest. Leon chuckled at the ministrations. “Charizard’s strict, but kind. It’ll be alright,” he reassured it.

Hop couldn’t help but smile wide at his brother. He was just so perfect with all pokémon he came across. He seemed to know everything one would ever need to know about them and always made fast friends with new ones. It was no wonder he had reigned as champion for so long. No other champion prior to Leon had remained undefeated for as long as he had. The longest running prior to Leon’s fifteen lofty years at the top had been six. Hop looked over at the Grookey currently chilling on his right shoulder. “I hope you and I will be good friends too, y’know,” Hop said. “You and me, buddy. Just like Wooloo. I’ll let you meet her soon!”

Wooloo was likely in the house somewhere. Although Leon had gotten her for him, she was close with everyone in the family due to how long she’d been with them. Not that he minded. He prided himself on how well she got along with the rest of the family. It admittedly helped them all feel a little closer to Leon when he was away for months and months at a time. At his words, Grookey gave a happy squeak and bashed the stick against Hop’s shoulder a couple more times. Hop winced at each strike.

“Well, that kind of hurts… maybe I’ll get used to it,” Hop muttered to himself.

“So!” Leon clapped his hands and brought everyone’s attention back to him. “Everyone satisfied with their choices?”

Hop glanced at Gloria and saw she was cuddling her new Sobble tight against her chest, much to the creature’s apparent dismay. “Definitely!” she replied without ever looking up at them. Hop grinned a little at the sight. Gloria always seemed to be in such a sour mood whenever Leon was around. He hoped the gift might urge her to see the good sides of his brother… not that he really understood why she disliked him in the first place.

Hop nodded vigorously. “I like Grookey!” Grookey seemed to emphasize the point by jabbing Hop in the ear with its stick. Hop yelped, then cringed, and gently pushed the stick away from his head.

“Good! I’m starved. I’ll get the barbecue goin’, what you think?” Leon asked, slapping a hand to his stomach. He had handed his Scorbunny off to Charizard, who was doing his best to keep his tail flame away from the curious little pokémon.

“Yes, please!” Hop begged. “I’ll go tell Mum and Dad!”

“Sounds good, I’ll get the grill goin’,” Leon said.

Another jab to the neck and Hop finally lost his patience. He gently removed the Grookey from his shoulders and set it to the ground. He blocked its advances to get back on him. “Look you,” he said, trying to sound critical, though a faint smile betrayed him, “you’re cute, but that stick bloody hurts. Stay off my shoulders or stop jabbin’ me, would you?”

It huffed at him and prodded his Wooloo lying next to them. They were outside still and had gathered beneath the shade of the big tree next to the shallow pond. Though he would never have told Gloria or anyone else, for that matter, Hop often sat there and talked to Wooloo. She never answered him, of course, but it made him feel closer and closer to her every time he did it. He figured it would be a fitting start to his relationship with Grookey to do the same, then. Grookey’s energetic jabs had interrupted him was all. Even as Grookey turned its attention to Wooloo, she was less than affected by Grookey’s jabs. Her thick layer of wool meant the stick barely fazed her. She looked as unaware as ever.

“You know, it’s so weird havin’ Leon over,” Hop said, petting Wooloo’s head gently and looking Grookey in the eyes. After a few seconds of stroking Wooloo, he glanced over at his brother. He was leaned over the grill. He had begrudgingly removed his cape to prevent it from getting caught in the grill’s stray flames and had even pulled his hair back. A few people were gathered around him and Charizard was laying nearby, lazily flicking his tail to keep Leon’s Scorbunny busy. He appeared to be dozing off on occasion, but every time he did, his tail would fall flat against the ground, and Scorbunny would seize the chance to land directly on it. In turn, Charizard would jolt awake, causing his tail to lash and throw Scorbunny in the process. Scorbunny must have seen it as a game since it kept coming back.

Hop kind of wished he could have been over there talking to Leon, but some reservation kept him planted in place with his two pokémon. He always found it hard to talk to Leon whenever it wasn’t private or with just immediate family. Leon had a slightly different persona when others were around and sometimes, he could say things that didn’t quite make sense. Hop also couldn’t shake the feeling that he came off as annoying to his brother. Leon had to be dealing with people constantly, all day, every day; having your irritating little brother at your side constantly begging for attention probably wasn’t very fun. That would then lead to him inwardly picking himself apart for craving Leon’s attention so badly… after all, he was a seventeen-year-old, almost a grown man by Galarian standards. It was embarrassing to want his brother’s attention so badly.

He jumped as Gloria sat down next to him. “Oh, h-hey, Gloria!” he stammered in surprise.

“So, why you think Lee gave us pokémon, anyway?” she asked, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Do you think Lee’s goin’ to… endorse us?”

“Shut up!” Hop gasped. The thought had, of course, been haunting the back of his mind since Leon had announced it, but he had tried not to give it too much thought… just in case it didn’t quite pan out that way. “You think he’s goin’ to endorse us?”

“I dunno, really,” Gloria giggled, “but why randomly give us three super rare Galarian-exclusive pokémon if not to give us a head start on the gym challenge, hmm?”

Hop nodded, rubbing his chin. “Man, I hope he does!”

Gloria fell silent for a moment as she looked over at the grill. “Who even are those people?” she asked about the small throng of people gathered around him. She sounded almost annoyed.

Hop shrugged. “I’m not sure, to be honest. But I’m sure they’re good friends to him or somethin’.”

Gloria sighed. “Yeah… somethin’ like that.”

Chapter Text

“So! Have you lot been bondin’ with those new pokémon of yours?” Leon asked sternly. He was standing next to the battlefield marked out in Hop’s front yard and had called to Gloria and Hop’s attention when they walked by. It was the day following the reception of their starters, and Hop had been visiting Gloria that morning to show her mother their new pokémon together. At Leon’s beckoning, they both jogged over to him faster, and nodded their heads. Gloria was a little annoyed they had been caught by the champion. She and Hop had just been discussing the possibility of a battle, and she had nearly convinced Hop it would be fine when his self-important brother had interrupted.

“Good,” Leon said, satisfied with that answer. He gave a pause and then seemed like he was going to strut back into the house. Gloria gave a start of surprise. Was that really all he wanted…? She had honestly expected something else, not that she was complaining.

“Wait! Lee…” Hop stopped him by gently grabbing at his cape. Gloria wanted to scream. Sometimes, Hop’s clinginess to Leon could be downright infuriating. “Could… could Gloria and I have a battle? I’ll show you how good I am!” There it was. The real reason Hop had been hesitating to battle her. She chewed her lip a little. He had just wanted to have Leon for an audience. She should have known…

Leon looked at Hop with a perplexing expression. Hop let go of his cape and took a step back; he didn’t seem all that sure what to make of it, either. The more she watched, the more Gloria bristled. The sheer sway Leon had over Hop’s mood awakened something furiously protective in her, even though she knew she had to keep that beast caged. At the end of the day, no matter his behavior… this was the beloved Champion of Galar. He could do no wrong. She curled her lip at the mutinous thought.

“Of course! What are you doin’ askin’ me for? They’re your pokémon,” Leon suddenly shouted and put his hands on his hips. “I’ll play referee, if you want.”

“You got it!” Hop said, sprinting over to one side of the battlefield. Gloria stalked to the other end.

“Hope you’re ready, Gloria,” Leon joked, a twinkle in his amber eyes. She averted her gaze to hide the anger. “You’re up for a two versus one.”

“Yeah?” Gloria responded idly, failing at trying to sound excited. She dug her heel into the dirt below her. Deciding to ignore Leon, she faced Hop and was able to force a cocky smile. Sometimes, she wondered how someone so grating could be related to someone so wonderful. More energetically, she shouted at him, “That’ll just make it even sweeter when I beat you, Hop!”

“Ha! Says you!” Hop snarked. “Go, Wooloo!”

Him and that Wooloo. She found his love for the most common pokémon in Galar adorable. “Out you go, Sobble!”

Hop narrowed his eyes at her Sobble. It looked less nervous than it did the day before, or at least, it was holding its own ground now. Sobble looked on Wooloo warily with its big, unmoving blue eyes. Wooloo shook her head, unfazed by the opponent facing it. He supposed that was only natural. Wooloo had been nothing but a pet up until this point… Worriedly, he wondered if Wooloo would even understand she was in a battle. They’d watched plenty of them together over the years, but still…

Only one way to find out. “Wooloo! Tackle it!”

Hop’s Wooloo cried out gleefully and tucked its head inward. It rolled quickly at Gloria’s Sobble, who squeaked in pain upon impact. Its wobbly legs failed to catch it as it was bowled over. Sobble scrambled to its feet and shook its head from side to side, the yellow fin adorning its head swiveling in the wind.

“Sobble, don’t be scared! Growl at it! You’ve got this!” Gloria sounded so determined. Her enthusiasm felt like it only fueled his own. Her eagerness despite her distinct disadvantage was so admirable.

He wasn’t sure if he’d call what Sobble did a Growl, though. It tucked its feet in underneath it and let out the most threatening noise it could muster… which, admittedly, wasn’t that threatening at all. At least not to Hop. But Wooloo’s ears pricked at the pathetic, grating noise, and she stumbled a couple of steps backward.

“Don’t get all bothered by that, Wooloo! Tackle again!” Hop cried encouragingly.

Sobble was ready this time. The agile little pokémon dodged the attack and scurried about the battlefield before finding a safer vantage point. It answered Gloria’s next call for attack with a Pound aimed at Wooloo’s face. Wooloo reared back and complained, but the attacks seemed to rile the pokémon up more and more, and Wooloo responded before Hop had even finished ordering it to Tackle Sobble again. It tossed the Sobble halfway across the battlefield.

“Good job, Wooloo, that’s it!” Hop pumped a fist in the air as he called out to her. He wanted her to know she was doing a fantastic job for her first real battle. He’d always been looking forward to this moment… he hoped that she knew she was doing a good job, even if she might not have been aware of what was going on. Hop stole a momentary peek at Leon in the midst of his thoughts. His brother was watching with that familiar, unreadable expression. He hated it when Leon looked like that, and he hated that he craved a stronger reaction from his brother even more. It was absolutely shameful, how desperate he was for some praise from that man. At least, he thought so. Turning his attention back to the battlefield, Hop could see that Wooloo wasn’t doing so hot, even if she did look as determined as could be. She was panting and her legs wobbled perilously.

“Finish it with another Pound, Sobble, you got this!” Gloria victoriously ordered. It seemed she’d already decided Wooloo was going down.

Hop didn’t think she was right until Sobble didn’t hit the Wooloo with a Pound at all. Instead, Sobble opened its mouth, and a jet of water sprayed at Wooloo. The water pressure was enough to throw Wooloo to her side and she didn’t bother trying to get back up. Hop blinked after her. He supposed he hadn’t really thought about how pokémon learned new moves before… He had known that they did, but he hadn’t even considered how… Another shameful bolt of embarrassment shot up his spine and he hunched his shoulders slightly. Who doesn’t bother thinking about that, Hop? he thought to himself bitterly.

“Oh wow, nice, Sobble! That was Water Gun, wasn’t it?” Gloria beamed with pride at her little pokémon. The Sobble squeaked happily back at her, bouncing in place.

“Wooloo is defeated!” Leon hollered in an uncharacteristically harsh tone of voice reminiscent of referees of official Pokémon League matches. He could recreate the voice with frightening accuracy. “Please recall your pokémon!”

Hop nodded. “You did so good Wooloo!” he forced through a mouthful of cotton. Just because he was upset with himself, that didn’t mean she didn’t deserve praise. “That was really great for your first battle! Come rest for a while.” He pressed the button to her Poké Ball, and the Wooloo gave a plaintive bahh as she was returned to her cozy Poké Ball. He took a deep, shuddery breath as he reached for Grookey’s Poké Ball. “Alright, Grookey, let’s go!” Hop tossed the Poké Ball with enthusiasm that made him nearly fall over. He caught himself in an ungracious display of waving arms.

Gloria snickered, making his cheeks burn, and then ordered, “Sobble, Water Gun it!”

What an odd choice… Sure, Sobble had just learned it, but wouldn’t Grookey’s natural defenses against Water-type make it less useful than a simple Pound? He decided he didn’t have time to think about that right then. What moves Gloria chose for her pokémon were her business. “Grookey, Scratch!”

Sobble narrowly avoided one Scratch by Grookey and returned fire with a jet of water from the lips. Grookey gave an annoyed grunt as it held its hands up against the spray and lashed claws at Sobble. The blow threw Gloria’s Sobble nearly outside the battlefield. Sobble at first seemed as if it wouldn’t get back up and Leon nearly called the match, but Sobble finally staggered back to its feet. Hop cursed under his breath and snapped his fingers. So close! At Gloria’s command, another Water Gun was issued. Grookey took it to the head and fell flat on its face.

Starting to panic, Hop nervously shouted, “C’mon Grookey, you can do it! Get up and try one more Scratch!” He had two pokémon, and one had a type advantage over Gloria’s single pokémon. He couldn’t seriously lose this! Much less so in front of Leon!

“Sobble, Growl it!”

Sobble gave another threatening growl. This one was more impacting to Hop himself and definitely seemed to bother his Grookey plenty. Grookey tentatively glanced about the battlefield, as if it were scouting for escape routes. Desperately trying to still his unsteady voice, Hop insisted, “It’s alright, Grookey, it’s just tryin’ to psych you out! Scratch it again!”

Grookey rushed in for another lash of its small but sharp claws while Sobble remained steadfast, finalizing the battle with just one more, fateful Water Gun. Grookey toppled to the ground and Hop shamefacedly reached for Grookey’s Poké Ball. I can’t believe this. Right in front of Lee, too. Gloria’s smart, sure, but… what’s wrong with me? “Come back, Grookey, you did great out there…”

“And there goes Hop’s Grookey! It appears Gloria is the winner of this one!” Leon howled, bouncing his weight from one foot to the other. It was a bizarre, childish display from the esteemed Champion of Galar, not that Hop nor anyone else in Galar would likely have picked up on that. They were too used to Leon’s antics to see the juvenile nature in them. “Almost made me want to let out Charizard to join all the fun!” he laughed as he regained his composure.

“Then no one would be havin’ fun,” Hop muttered dejectedly. He tugged at the woolen collar of his jacket hard. It felt too warm and tight on him now, as if it were squeezing down on his frame, and the normally soft, plush interior irritated his skin everywhere.

“Haha, chin up, little bro,” Leon said, giving Hop a mighty pat on the back that almost bowled him over. Hop coughed as he caught himself. “You did great. I was worried you were still obsessin’ over silly things, like how to toss a Poké Ball properly, or whatever, but I think you’re really growin’ up here!”

Hop winced at the statement. But I do still try to perfect how to throw a Poké Ball…. That’s not silly, it’s not exactly impressive to the crowd if you stumble or fall tryin’ to throw the thing… It certainly hadn’t felt nice when Gloria had snickered at him when he did it moments ago. But he bit his tongue. He didn’t want to argue with Leon over something so trivial, especially not when he clearly thought it was beneath Hop’s dignity. “Thanks, Lee,” he said dryly and with a weak smile.

“That was fun!” Gloria chimed in, popping in next to them with her Sobble in her arms. She had her brown eyes trained squarely on Hop. “But Hop, why not have Grookey use Branch Poke? Grass-type is stronger against Water-type, you know. I’m kind of shocked.”

Hop wanted to melt into the ground. “That’s… that’s a move?” Hop sputtered. “I thought it was just something silly Grookey did! And I thought it was too little to know anything like Vine Whip, or Razor Leaf…”

“Like I said, first battle,” Leon yawned. His nonchalant reaction did not help Hop feel any better. He could tell the words were meant to be sympathetic, but he sounded so robotic, like a verbal printer. “You lot’ll get better at it.”

Hop swallowed his pride and decided to change the subject altogether. He wanted to cling to the positives of what Leon had said rather than exacerbate the shortcomings the battle had brought to light. “Lee! If you think I’m so much more mature and probably goin’ to get better and all that, why not let me in the gym challenge? Then I could really show you how strong I can be!” He sounded more pleading than he’d have liked. Shyly, he wondered if that would encourage Leon to give in.

“Yeah, me too! I’ll fight Hop any time he wants!” Gloria said, pumping a first in the air. Despite her enthusiastic display, though, she sounded almost as robotic as Leon had a moment ago. He felt a prickle of annoyance. He wished he could see into her mind to figure out what she didn’t like about him. It had made hanging out with her in recent years a pain. She had no interest in watching Leon’s matches unless they involved Raihan, and Hop had already studied all those like his life depended on it. He knew she was smart and enjoyed battling, so he just… didn’t understand…

Leon’s face went blank, but then Hop swore he saw the lightbulb go off in his brother’s head. “Oh, is that right, you lot have one pokémon battle and suddenly think you’re ready for the gym challenge?” he taunted, his voice nearly a sneer. Hop recoiled a little at his change in demeanor. “Alright maybe I’ll consider it, after you go fetch Pokédexes from that lab in Wedgehurst. No gym challenger’d be caught dead without one.” He smugly crossed his arms.

Hop, doing his best to drum up some courage in his voice, snapped his fingers and nodded. “You got it, Lee!” He wasn’t sure if it was excitement or nervous fervor from the humiliating defeat in front of his brother but Hop whirled around and bolted like he was going to beeline it for Wedgehurst right then and there. His thoughts were muddy, and he halted with a cringe as Leon screamed after him.

“Oi! Get back here!” Leon cried. “Your team’s all fainted! Let me heal ‘em up at least…”

Hop’s cheeks burned even worse. He just wanted to leave, already, wanted Leon to go away, wanted to just go ahead to Wedgehurst… Today was not going his way at all. He glowered at Gloria for her giggling. “Who are you laughin’ at?”

“Ohh, he’s all feisty now,” Gloria giggled. She smirked at him and—winked? Did she wink? “I like it.”

“Toss ‘em out,” Leon chuckled.

Why’d she wink? That was strange… Hop thought as he obliged Leon’s orders distractedly, throwing both Wooloo and Grookey’s Poké Balls in an uncharacteristically lazy arc. Both exited their tiny homes snoozing peacefully. Leon leaned down on one knee and sprayed a light golden fluid over one, then the other. “Max revives,” he explained, winking at the two of them. Wooloo and Grookey then both slowly came to. They stood up and looked about. Grookey located Hop right away and scaled him all the way up to his shoulders, where it proudly puffed out its chest.

“Ha, at least one of us feels good about that, huh?” Hop asked him teasingly, trying to put some conviction in his words. The Grookey gave a nod of approval. Wooloo shook out her wool and began to wander off in search of a tasty patch of grass. It was only natural. She was used to having free reign. He rarely kept her inside the Poké Ball.

“And before you both go runnin’ off to get a Pokédex, might want to tell your parents,” Leon instructed. “You do that. I’ll head down to Wedgehurst myself and wait for you at the Lab, alright?”

“Sounds good, Lee!” Hop forced. Gloria nodded slowly, still ensuring her gaze never met Leon’s face.

Leon lazily pitched a Poké Ball at the ground, and Charizard appeared. He did a bow of sorts, and Leon slipped over his shoulders. With that, Charizard blasted into the sky with unnatural strength.

“He’s totally goin’ to endorse us,” Gloria practically sang, her entire demeanor different now that Leon was gone. She twirled around in front of him and clasped her hands in front of herself. She gave another lopsided smirk. “Off to the Lab, then?”

“I’ll go tell my Mum, you go tell yours, too, then of course!” Hop agreed. He felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Talking to Gloria was so much easier than talking to Leon. “I’ll be waitin’ for you out here, just come back here after, okay?”

Chapter Text

“You all ready?” Hop asked Gloria as she approached and adjusted his backpack somewhat. She nodded before she even reached him. “Then let’s—”


“Oi!” Hop looked around until he spotted the source of the noise. Wooloo was battering her head repeatedly against an old fence gate. But not just any fence gate. This fence gate looked rotten with moisture, gained from years of sitting unmoved in front of a heavily forested pathway that led deep into somewhere known only as the Slumbering Weald. It was a brooding, thick woodland that swallowed up Postwick’s southwestern borders. Even from the outside, it looked eerie and horribly dark… He cleared his throat and ordered, “Wooloo! Knock that off! You won’t like it in there one bit!”

“Is that crazy thing tryin’ to get into the Slumberin’ Weald?” Gloria asked incredulously. “That place’s scary. What on Earth’s it want in there for?”

“Who knows,” Hop sighed. “But based on our battle earlier, I doubt it can actually break in. Though one has to wonder why it’s just a little wood gate blockin’ that place off. Professor Magnolia’s granddaughter was in a right awful state once she came out of there! And she was lucky to even be found!”

“You could just… recall the Wooloo,” Gloria said, only half-joking.

Hop, with his Grookey half asleep around his neck, looked at her a little nervously. He knew she was right, and he felt silly for it… He knew that every real gym challenger kept their pokémon tucked well inside their Poké Balls for safekeeping and easy travel. The thought of it sent a pang of guilt through his chest, though… Licking clammy lips, he mumbled, “I dunno, Wooloo’s been a pet to us for so long, it’s always been outside the Poké Ball. It doesn’t super like it in there.”

Gloria shrugged dismissively. “Fair enough—”


Hop glanced back over at the gate just in time to watch it give way and Wooloo roll into the dark and damp depths of the forest. “Wooloo, wait! Get back out here, you bloody—!” He cut himself off as he rushed to chase after her. His heart was already pounding. He had had that Wooloo since he was like, five! Leon had brought her home for him, almost just like Grookey. She hadn’t been exclusively his all those years, no, but… but… well, sometimes it felt like she was all his! And she was his friend! He felt pressure on his wrist and his foot skid from under him as he was abruptly brought to a halt.

“What gives?!” Hop snapped as he found Gloria was holding his arm. They didn’t have time for this!

“Are you mad?” Gloria asked. Her eyes were stretched wide in worry. “You’re goin’ to go runnin’ in there without lettin’ a soul know? Remember the story about Sonia? How she was all messed up after gettin’ lost in there? Lucky anybody at all found her?”

“It’s bad in there, somethin’ could happen to her before we manage to get help! Please let me go! Or help me?” Hop pleaded. His golden eyes were wide and round with worry. He could practically see the cogs in Gloria’s mind whirling to figure out if the risk was worth it, and he hoped she’d see it his way. This was no laughing matter. Wooloo was in trouble! Finally, her grip slacked, and she hung her head in defeat.

“Alright, alright, I’ll go with you, but we go in there for Wooloo and come straight back out!”

“Of course! I don’t exactly want to be in there either, you know!” Hop snorted contemptuously. “Let’s go!”

Into the forest they went. Within a few feet, the light of the entrance was swallowed up behind them, and only the odd patch of sunlight gleaming through the canopy dared touch the floor. Earthy, leafy scents wafted up from the ground and assaulted their noses. Hop became keenly aware of a dense fog that was also gathered about the trunks of the trees around them. It looked like something straight out of a horror movie. He never did like those.

“Wooloo! Come on, mate, this isn’t funny!” Hop squinted as they pressed further into the forest guarded by fog. “It couldn’t have gotten far, could it?” he asked Gloria desperately.

“Bloody thing can roll, it’s probably all the way at the bottom of the path by now,” Gloria moaned in annoyance. Hop groaned. That hadn’t been the answer he had been hoping for at all. As if sensing his dismay, Gloria awkwardly corrected herself. “I—I mean… I’m sure we’ll find her somewhere ‘round here, we just might need to head a little further in, is all…”

“We just… need to keep goin’ ‘til we find her,” Hop insisted, his voice wavering. You would manage to get a new pokémon and then immediately lose your best fri—Wooloo, your Wooloo, in the same day, wouldn’t you? a nasty thought growled at him in his head. Despairingly, he thought of all the other times he and Wooloo had been separated by less than fortunate means… Once, she had become so jealous of Leon’s Charizard, that she had ran away. Hop had felt horrible after that. Rattled, he wondered if this was her feeling left out again… Was she jealous about Grookey? Oh, he hoped they found her soon…

They continued their trek deeper yet deeper into the damp, foggy forest. The fog grew thicker and more menacing by the foot, it felt like. Hop continued to call for Wooloo, but there was only silence in response. It felt like the forest itself were mocking him now. There was the occasional rustle in the grass, and each time his heart fluttered hopefully, but each time, he was let down as a Weezing puttered along close to the ground or a Skwovet hissed at them and scurried away.

Hop recalled his Grookey out of anxiousness when the pokémon started to get antsy. Guiltily, he realized he’d all but forgotten about it, perched on his shoulders, and he didn’t trust it to not run off. If it escaped, they’d really be in trouble then, not unless Gloria was somehow as good at climbing trees as a Grookey, because Hop knew he certainly wasn’t. Beyond that, the idea of possibly losing both of his pokémon partners in one day was one he didn’t want to even consider.

That amusing thought was banished as fog abruptly rolled in even thicker, thick enough to cut through, it felt like. “Gloria, I can’t see a thing!” Hop called, grinding to a halt. Gloria’s footsteps ceased as well. He flailed his arms through the density for momentarily, but no amount of waving seemed to ease up the haze. What kind of fog is this? he thought, ready to cry. Today just kept getting worse and worse. He wondered if the day was a nightmare. He almost hoped it was, and he’d wake up with Wooloo cuddled up to him in his comfortable bed, Grookey resting in its Poké Ball or curled up on his head…

“Me neither, Hop, we… we should turn back…” His heart sank as he caught the fright in Gloria’s voice. Not only was Wooloo gone, but he’d put Gloria in danger, now, too. Pained, he had to admit, searching through this sort of fog was pointless. His lips felt like lead as he tried to open them to tell Gloria she was right… then his blood ran cold.


An earsplitting howl silenced them both. Hop barely dared to breathe. He couldn’t even see Gloria standing right next to him and that set his heart thumping even harder. None of that could prepare him for seeing the beastly pokémon step just inches away from his feet and let out another piercing, menacing howl, though. It reminded him of a Boltund… but it was so much larger, and it was mainly blue. And much unlike any Boltund he’d ever seen, its eyes were narrowed and dark, in a way that screamed a vicious hatred. This… this thing seemed so angry… Its muzzle was centimeters away from Hop’s nose. Those eyes… He couldn’t look away, even as it drew its lips back and bared vicious, sharp teeth. Terrified, Hop knew that if he could make out the detail on this thing’s teeth, it was far closer than he wanted anything like it to be.

“Gloria! We’ve got to go!” Hop wailed as he shut his eyes. When the painful bite of those teeth, angular and designed for thrashing, met his skin, he didn’t want to see the blood.

“Way ahead of you, Hop!” Hop heard a Poké Ball opening and saw a flash of red light illuminate the fog around them briefly.

“You’re goin’ to try to fight this thing?!” Hop exclaimed. “Do I need to call Suicide Watch?”

“Calm it! You don’t think this thing would chase us down? Look at it! Got legs longer than any Boltund I’ve ever seen!”

Hop shook his head. All he could imagine in his mind was that adorable Sobble being ripped to shreds by that beastly pokémon’s cruel jaws, all while its equally as evil eyes watched him and his childhood friend unfeelingly. Yet no sounds of ripping flesh or scales came, and the pokémon just stood there. Its menacing presence was utterly unfazed as Gloria ordered attacks at it. Strangely, all he heard was the sound of water splattering onto leaves…

“My attacks aren’t doin’ anythin’ to it!” Gloria shouted at last, sounding as rattled as Hop felt.

The fog shrouded around them like billowing smoke. In fact, it was so thick, Hop felt wet with the dampness, and uncomfortable, like he was being forced into way too small a space. He dared to open his eyes again. Everything was white. The dastardly pokémon howled again. Hop’s head suddenly felt much heavier, and he stumbled a little. Alarmingly, he felt… calmer…  “Gloria…?”

“I don’t… feel so good, Hop…”


Hop’s torso felt too heavy for his legs. He staggered again and this time, hit the ground knees-first. He was briefly aware of the pain from landing so awkwardly, but his attention turned to the pokémon ahead of them as it snarled at him. He clenched his eyes and raised his arms to defend himself, but no bite met his flesh.  His arms fell slack, the rest of his body collapsed to the gross, wet ground, and that was the last thing he remembered.

“Hop! Gloria!”

His voice carried through the forest poorly. It was blocked by far too many trees, as well as a dense, intimidating fog. Charizard with his bright tail and loud footsteps helped guide his way and kept wild pokémon at bay. Any that seemed interested in him quickly changed their mind once Charizard bared his fangs. Leon rubbed his temple. He had come back after waiting at Sonia’s Lab for an hour and had seen the gate to the Slumbering Weald in splinters on the grass. His chest had hummed with worry at the sight, and as he wandered the forestry, he frustratedly wondered why they hadn’t just gone straight to the Lab. What did they even have to gain from entering the Slumbering Weald? Sonia had been seriously messed up for weeks after being rescued from in here! And now his brother was possibly lost in there! Not to mention Gloria… if Hop had put Gloria at risk, he didn’t even know what to think. His stomach was twisting with anguish and worry.

Charizard gave a chuff and slammed its tail against the ground. The gentle sound of a Wooloo followed. Leon rushed to get ahead of Charizard and spotted Hop’s Wooloo nibbling on grass. His heart sank in despair at the confirmation. “So, they are in here,” Leon said, sounding strangled. He looked up and squinted through the fog ahead. Something on the ground caught his attention. He thought…

“Hop!” he squeaked, his voice cracking. He bolted toward a figure sprawled against the ground. Landing on his knees next to him, Leon vigorously shook Hop’s limp body. Throat clamping in emotion, he exhaled loudly in relief as Hop stirred, hauling himself awkwardly to his feet. Just next to him, Gloria was also passed out against the floor. Once Hop was back on his feet, Leon dug his fingers into his brother’s arm painfully, demanding an explanation. “Hop! What the bloody hell got into you two to be out here in the Weald?” He let go of Hop’s arm when the boy whimpered and winced. He hadn’t intended to hurt him; he had just been so… scared… He hadn’t felt that in a very, very long time. His breath hitched in his throat as Leon worriedly brushed Hop’s shoulders off and tugged at his coat, scanning his younger brother up and down for any notable injuries. Hop simply let him, seeming too groggy and confused to fend him off.

“I… we… we were lookin’ for Wooloo,” Hop slurred and shook his head dazedly.

Leon jerked his head to Gloria then, who had begun to twitch. He helped pull her to her feet, which startled her fully awake. She stumbled backward and a pained squeak from her Sobble sounded. The little pokémon skirted out from behind her and started to lick its tail. It also looked shaky and half-conscious. “Sorry, Sobble,” Gloria rasped quietly, “didn’t mean… step on your tail…”

“This place is off-limits for a reason!” Leon reminded them sharply, far more high-pitched than he meant to be. He raised a finger as if to ask them to wait and cleared his throat. His hands then found his hips and he gave them both a scathing glare. How dare they make him lose his cool like that! He was the champion! And here he was frazzled as a Frosmoth in a desert! Steeling his voice, he asked more respectfully, “Why are you lot in here? I said go to the Pokémon Lab.”

“Wooloo wandered in here,” Hop said softly. His eyes were fixated on his own shoes. “We were worried about it because this place is off-limits. I thought somethin’ bad might happen to it, Lee.”

“Is that right?” Leon asked and looked over at Gloria. Hop’s guilty tone made him feel bad… He had just been worried. He was so relieved they were okay; he couldn’t even have begun to explain it to his brother.

She met his round, worried eyes, and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. She still had a distant look on her face and she squinted at him like she wasn’t sure how far away he was. “That’s it. And then we got attacked by this… this… thing…”

Hop nodded and he lit up in nervous excitement. “It was so big, Lee! It towered over us! It kinda looked like a Boltund, but it had pointed ears, it was all blue, and it had such scary eyes!”

Leon frowned and tilted his head thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. He’d never heard about a pokémon like that before… Fretfully, he asked, “Did it hurt you? Like hit you or anythin’?”

“Actually… no,” Gloria interrupted. Her voice was a little clearer now. “I was worried it’d chase us down since it looked so strong, so I sent out Sobble,” she paused so she could pick up Sobble and give it a reassuring hug. “And Sobble’s attacks didn’t seem to be able to hit it at all, but it didn’t move. I… I think—”

“I think you lot had hallucinations from all the fog,” Leon muttered, fed up with the story. If they had met a pokémon, that would explain why they had been passed out against the ground. “You’re lucky all it did was knock you out rather than turn you into a snack, whatever it was. Now let’s go, before it happens again.”

“What about Wooloo?” Hop asked tensely, as if it only just registered they still hadn’t found her.

Leon gestured to his Charizard. Charizard moved his wings to reveal the Wooloo safely tucked beneath them. “Chap’s just fine. Charizard and I found it on the way in.” Hop let out a long breath in relief. He rushed over and immediately embraced Wooloo in a tight hug. It would have been an embarrassing display of affection given different circumstances… at least, Leon thought so. He didn’t blame Hop for being glad, but… that was the sort of thing one only did in private with their pokémon. Just makes you look weak when you do it in front of people like that… Leon shook his head and opted to keep his thoughts to himself. He then gestured for them to follow, and Gloria and Hop did just that after Hop recalled Wooloo, just in case she got anymore ideas. Charizard brought up the rear.

“I think you two did the right thing tryin’ to help Wooloo like that,” Leon finally said as an awkward silence dragged for too long. He hated having to admit it—he had been worried sick, and his frantic reaction was no doubt lost on them; he was so glad that it had been just them three in that forest—but it was quite courageous of his brother to have enough desire to help another to face the unknown. He wished Hop wouldn’t have put Gloria in harm’s way, but that was a lecture for another time, when he wasn’t so amped up. He couldn’t wait for this business about Hop and his friend getting their pokémon to be over with so he could go crash at Raihan’s for a week. He had such a headache, he felt like he deserved it.

“Also, how did you find us, Lee? You’re pants with directions!” Hop asked, interrupting his thoughts and laughing hysterically.

Leon gave him a curious look. It was the best he could do to hide the genuine annoyance at his brother plucking at his emotions and sense of direction. Well, little brother, if you must know, I raced off to look for you two just myself because I was afraid if I didn’t do anything you would be toast. Of course, he couldn’t say that. Instead, he jibed, “That’s nice to hear from my little brother that had me worried sick. Also, pants? What was in that fog, mate?” Leon ruffled Hop’s hair in a half-hearted attempt at lightening the mood. Hop weakly struggled against his brother.

“Stop!” Hop gasped at last. Leon finally let him go, a smug, victorious grin painted on his face.

“Alright, now once we get out of here,” Leon said, “you lot rest at home a bit. Then come to the Lab. And I do mean actually come to the Lab,” he emphasized pointedly.

They finally found the bright exit from the desolate forest after wandering for a short while in the damp underbrush, mostly guided by Leon’s Charizard. Leon didn’t know what he would do without that Charizard. He was a brilliant navigator, an excellent friend, and a fierce battling partner. He couldn’t have imagined a better pokémon to have had for so long. He was disciplined enough to always remain at Leon’s side and even without any training, he was incredibly protective of Leon and his friends. He patted the Charizard against the muzzle. It was a small show of affection, but Charizard understood it meant far more than it seemed to. He practically purred after Leon as he stepped away from him.

Hop and Gloria found new energy as they breached the exit and raced ahead of Leon. “Sunlight!” Gloria cried. “I thought I’d never see it again! Thought that wretched thing was goin’ to have me for dinner!”

Hop just made a beeline straight for his house. “C’mon, Gloria, go rest so we can go to the Pokémon Lab!”

“Don’t you want like, five minutes to enjoy bein’ alive?” Gloria hollered after him even though she knew he was already gone. She shook her head and muttered quietly, “Thanks, Leon, for savin’ us back there.” It sounded as if she’d had a difficult time saying that. Of course, all his ego let him hear was the thanks, not the deadpan tone in which it was delivered.

He grinned wide and struck that familiar pose, jabbing two fingers at the sky and looking dramatically toward the ground. His cape billowed as if the universe itself knew how much wind to blow Leon’s way whenever he struck that pose. Really, the secret was that he just hit it with his other hand shortly before jutting the other upward. It happened so fast that most wouldn’t notice. “No problem,” he winked at her. “I’ll see you lot at the Lab later!”

Gloria stumbled back to her place, and Leon gave Charizard a pat on the head. “You think you can handle a flight to the Lab real quick?” Leon asked.

Charizard allowed Leon onto its back, and once they were aloft, Leon sighed. Those two weren’t getting any recommendations from him this season, that was for damn sure. Appreciate his brother’s courage to save his Wooloo friend from an unknown threat he did, but it showed just how reckless his brother could still be. The gym challenge encouraged its members to embark in all sorts of dangerous environments and methods of capturing pokémon. Other challengers could be ruthless in their taunts, especially during battles. Fans before and after stadium matches were often uncouth and downright vulgar. The idea of letting Hop, full of determination and reckless fervor, have free reign of the world at large was just plain scary. If he was reckless enough to book it into the dangerous Slumbering Weald, what else was he capable of? He shook the thoughts from his head.

He was really looking forward to a good chat with Sonia after all of that…

Chapter Text

Gloria rubbed her eyes. She had slept horribly that night before. Her dreams had been haunted with visions of that nightmarish creature she and Hop had stumbled across in the woods. In fact, they seemed to loop endlessly on an image of that creature sprinting madly across a field, snapping its jaws every few paces, and blood would fly from its jaws as it did. She never could see where the blood was coming from, though… All she knew was that it had been disturbing. As she stumbled down the path to Wedgehurst, Hop was fuming at her side. “Can you believe it?” he was saying. “Mum kept me home all night! Lee might be tryin’ to endorse us after we get this Pokédex, and she’s all, ‘you got to sleep, kid! You’ll run yourself ragged!’ The nerve!”

Gloria snorted in amusement. “Yes, how awful of her,” Gloria agreed, secretly glad Hop’s mother had done that. She had been exhausted and had wanted nothing more than to sleep for a while following their detour into the Slumbering Weald. Besides, it helped stave off the sweaty feeling of how she was pretty certain they had nearly died. Hop seemed to gloss over that fact. Which, of course he did. She was sure there was nothing that could have happened that could pry his laser-focus away from getting his endorsement for the gym challenge and impressing his egotistical brother. Nothing at all, she thought with a wince.

Not that long after stepping into Wedgehurst, they stopped just in front of the Pokémon Lab. Leon strode out from its automatic doors and grinned at them. Sometimes, she really just wanted to wipe that stupid smile off his face. If she ever managed to get an endorsement and if she ever faced Leon, she thought amusedly, she’d make sure to do just that. “Get a good night’s rest?” he teased. “Anyway, c’mon in!”

Hop eagerly booked it inside after him and Gloria followed more calmly. She didn’t want to give Leon the pleasure of her excitement, not anymore. She’d given him enough over the gift of the Sobble. Maybe that was petty, especially considering he’d just saved them from the Slumbering Weald the day before, but part of her frankly didn’t care. She knew Leon better than most of his drooling fans and possibly even his brother. She wasn’t fooled by his showmanship. Part of her knew that if he had run into Slumbering Weald specifically to find them, he had deliberately put her and Hop both in danger to fuel his ego. His knack for getting lost was so well-known even Galarians that sniveled at his feet would joke about it. Yet, he had decided to take the risk so he could have the glory of finding them in the Slumbering Weald himself. How fitting.

Inside, the gorgeousness of the Lab distracted her fuming thoughts. It had a pleasing, dark wood aesthetic contrasted against sheer white walls and tiles in certain areas. A library on the second floor stood proud, and machines littered the desks throughout the building. It was very open and welcoming, far different from the stuffy images of pokémon research labs she’d seen on TV.

“Yamp! Yamp-er!”

Gloria looked at the stairs just in time to see a bumbling Yamper struggle to get a grip on the hard wood floor, its claws scrabbling madly before finally catching some leverage, and it made a beeline for them. It bounced at their feet adorably, wiggling its yellow rear to wag its stubby tail for attention.

“That there,” Leon said in a mockingly dramatic tone, “is Sonia’s Yamper.” He ran a hand down from the pokémon’s head to its back. “Such a cute pokémon. Me and this Yamper go way back.”

“What about Sonia…?” Hop asked, looking genuinely bewildered. Gloria pinched the bridge of her nose in exasperation. She liked Hop, but Arceus, could he lose the forest for the trees sometimes around Leon.

“Oh, Sonia?” Leon seemed surprised. “Oh… she makes good curry, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, Lee!” a woman huffed at him. Gloria and Hop looked over at the staircase and saw that now a woman with peach-red hair was standing there. She had her hands planted on her hips over a tan trenchcoat, and she looked none too amused by Leon’s little charade. Her aqua eyes narrowed at him. “We were gym challengers together! It wasn’t that long ago. I’m not that old.”

“Oh!” Leon said loudly, slapping a hand to his forehead. “My bad, Sonia, I just have such a bad memory. So much to keep track of, bein’ champion and all.”

Arceus above, give me strength, Gloria thought to herself as she briefly glanced at the ceiling.

“I beat you once!” Sonia blurted out. Gloria snapped her gaze to the professor and stifled a laugh. Not for Leon’s sake, but for Sonia’s. As much as she loved the idea of the lackadaisical professor’s assistant kicking Leon’s butt, she couldn’t fathom how it was possible. Hop, meanwhile, gave a serious glare in her direction.

“That’s not funny! Nobody’s ever beat him,” Hop practically growled. Gloria reached a hand to his shoulder and just shook her head at him.

“Hop, please,” she whined. She was approaching her limit with his deification of Leon. He just looked at her dubiously. She knew he didn’t know what she was quite getting at, and that frustrated her even further. She couldn’t just tell him. He’d flip out at her and as much as she couldn’t stand Leon, she hated fighting with Hop more. So, she made the executive decision to keep her mouth shut. She always had to bite her tongue…

“In his professional career,” Sonia explained in a singsong tone and cast a wicked grin Leon’s way. “I beat you once~” she repeated herself flauntingly.

“That was my first battle after I got my Charmander,” Leon said hotly. The cool playfulness had melted away. Gloria and Hop both let a few loud guffaws out before clamping their mouths shut. It was actually true! Gloria was wickedly delighted at the knowledge.

“That’s more like it.” Sonia, seemingly satisfied at having miffed Leon, turned her attention to Hop and Gloria. Gloria had always liked Sonia in the brief moments she’d met her, but she liked her even more now. She didn’t know the lazy assistant had it in her to be so defiant in the face of the champion. “Now then, I assume you lot are here for a Pokédex, hm?”

Hop nodded, though it was clear he was struggling to keep from giggling at learning Leon lost to Sonia years and years ago. She was just glad he was no longer defending his brother’s honor for some ancient, long-lost battle. “L-Lee said that if we ever really want to become gym challengers, best to start with a Pokédex!”

“And right he is,” Sonia agreed. “You both have got Rotom Phones, yeah? If you’ll hand ‘em over for a sec, I can get them updated with the Pokédex.”

“We’re gonna have a Pokédex in our phones?” Gloria was mystified. “That’s so useful!”

“Right?” Sonia beamed. “Though, really it’s my gran who developed that. You lot should go thank her after this. She lives in a house just off Route Three, just a short ways outside Wedgehurst. She’s taken the day off, just had me here cleanin’ up today.”

Sonia gently grasped their phones and carried them over to a desk with a laptop sitting open. It had enough cords spiraling out of its back that Gloria was sure it would constitute a fire hazard. She plugged each phone in individually, would type a few things on the computer, and then wait. The phones would light up and Rotom would give a little bzzzrrt! of excitement. It would then lift the phones into the air, levitating around Sonia’s hair. “Yes, yes, you’re welcome,” Sonia giggled. “Now go home, ‘kay?”

The phones zipped back to their respective owners, and Gloria immediately checked out the new installation. The app was blank for now but had a massive list that could be filled out.

“There you go. That’ll tell you all you’d ever need to know about any pokémon you catch, and even a little bit about ones you just see. Havin’ it in the Rotom Phones is extra handy since you don’t have to remember to take it out and scan it. Rotom should jump at the opportunity to scan anythin’ you come across.” Sonia nodded encouragingly at them and smiled. It vanished as she looked over Leon, much to Gloria’s continued amusement. “And you. Is that how you’re goin’ to repay me for lettin’ you stay over last night? By actin’ like you don’t even know me this mornin’?”

“Aww, it was funny,” Leon insisted apologetically. Hop and Gloria shared a look and snickered. After a pathetic attempt at giving her round, puppy eyes, he whirled to face Hop and Gloria again. “Alright, let’s go, on to Route Three!”

“C’mon Lee, you got to endorse us! We got a Pokédex now!” Hop begged with renewed vigor. Gloria put in the effort to look up at Leon hopefully. For once, she just wished he’d do something Hop wanted him to do… She was eager to get out there, too, but she knew this ultimately meant way more to Hop.

She sighed as she realized that was not going to happen. “Let’s go thank Magnolia, don’t be in such a rush,” Leon waved them off. “Now, ah… help me to Route Three, would you, Hop?”

Hop rolled his eyes and strode ahead of his brother. Gloria was sure he was a lot more annoyed about Leon wanting him to wait for a response than he let on. “Sure, sure,” he puffed tiredly. Gloria dared to shoot Leon a dirty look as she trotted after Hop. She was losing all patience the longer they were around him. She couldn’t wait for him to leave them alone again for however many months. It wasn’t like she hadn’t already comforted Hop many a times in Leon’s prolonged absences.

Because if there’s three things Leon’s good at, Gloria thought snidely, it’s getting lost, battling, and fucking off for months on end without so much as a phone call.

Alright, Leon, after this, you’ve got to tell them point blank you’re not endorsing them this season, a voice was saying in the champion’s mind. You’ve got to stop stringing them and yourself along! And I don’t like the way that Gloria looks at me…

They had just arrived ahead of Magnolia’s house. It was the only one on this route, so at least, he hoped it was Magnolia’s house. Pants with directions. Hop’s words echoed in his mind. He rolled his eyes and smiled a little. He despised how much the comment amused him. More than that, it annoyed him that it was true. Without Charizard, he could get as lost as a needle in a haystack.

Leon knocked on the navy-blue door. “Just a second!” called a rattled, frail voice from inside. As they waited, a soft pnk! caught Leon’s attention. He glanced behind him and saw Hop bent over something on the ground. He picked it up and examined it in his palm. Leon craned his neck curiously.

“Lee, what is this?” Hop said, holding up two fragments of a purplish rock. It glowed a faint pink.

The door in front of Leon creaked open and a hunched over woman with salt and pepper hair looked out. She traced Leon’s line of sight and once she saw what Hop was holding up, brushed past the champion blithely, tugging his cape slightly off kilter as she did. Leon sputtered something profane after her, but she ignored it completely. He adjusted the cape and scowled.

“My child! That’s a Wishin’ Star,” she beamed in excitement.

“A Wishin’ Star?” Gloria echoed confusedly.

“Yes, a Wishin’ Star! They’re what Dynamax Bands get made with, what allow trainers to do that,” she nodded. “Lee, show them yours, would you?”

Leon was taken aback by how she ordered him around. He supposed he hadn’t been around Magnolia in quite some time. He deliberately stuck out his right arm and then pulled the white cuff around his wrist back to reveal a black bracelet that had a glimmering, violet stone like the ones Hop clutched tight. Once Gloria and Hop were finished gawking, he slid the white cuff back over it. He gave Magnolia a challenging look. He wasn’t there to be ordered around like one of her assistants.

“Wow! And it landed right in front of me, too!” Hop was brimming with pride, ignorant to the tension between Leon and Magnolia.

“They say when those fall for someone, that person’s dreams will come true,” Magnolia said wistfully. “But if you hand those to me, I can fashion you and your friend here Dynamax Bands.”

“Really?” Hop cried. “You can do that? Yes, please!”

Gloria sounded equally as shocked. “Yes! Can you imagine, Hop? Bein’ able to Dynamax a pokémon of our own?”

Hop hunched over slightly and curled his fingers into something that resembled claws. “Big Grookey!” he said, waving a hand at her and then occasionally jabbing her in the side. Gloria squealed and batted his hands away. Her skin flushed red as she laughed along with his joke.

“Ah, Magnolia…” Leon began nervously. He was realizing a critical error he had made: he had not told Magnolia before arriving that he didn’t intend to endorse either Hop or Gloria yet, and Dynamax Bands wouldn’t exactly be of much use to them before starting the gym challenge. In fact, it would just make them both even more certain Leon was going to endorse them. But Magnolia was blissfully unaware of Leon’s predicament and seemed interested in keeping it that way, for she ignored him entirely and invited Hop and Gloria into her home. Leon followed halfheartedly, still trying (and failing) to get Magnolia’s attention.

“Now, now, Mr. Champion, it’s rude to interrupt,” she warned him. Her eyes glittered almost knowingly at him. She turned back to Hop and Gloria and held up two black bands in her other arm. “The Chairman developed these here bands, somehow the technology in them is able to draw out a certain energy from these rocks we call Wishing Stars. The rocks seem to have boundless amounts of it, so one Wishing Star could last a single trainer a lifespan of eighty years, and that’s if they dynamaxed three times a day from birth to death.” She shrugged and fit a piece of stone into each band respectively before clamping them down over Hop and Gloria’s wrists.

“Magnolia,” Leon said through gritted teeth. His frustration was rapidly mounting.

“Oh, Lee, you’ve just got to endorse us now!” Hop cried, practically bouncing up and down at his brother’s feet. “You’ve seen us battle, we’ve got Dynamax Bands, it fell at my feet, for Arceus’s sake! I can’t let you down now, even if I wanted to!”

“Oh, Lee!” Magnolia said, finally acknowledging him. Her eyes were still glittering in a way Leon couldn’t place, but he knew he didn’t like it. “Why won’t you endorse them? Worried about your brother comin’ for your throne?” she asked slyly.

Hop pumped a fist in the air. “He’s right to be worried about that!”

Leon felt the blood draining from his face. “Magnolia, it’s—”

“Please?” Hop and Gloria both were begging now. Leon gave an audible groan, unable to look Hop or his friend in the eyes. He was still able to glare at Magnolia though. He was onto her game now. She had done this on purpose! He was sure of it!

Leon shakily reached into a pocket in his pants where he kept prewritten recommendations. He had yet to ever use any but kept them handy just in case he came across some truly astounding trainer. So, this was it. Even as much as he knew Gloria and Hop weren’t ready, he couldn’t stand the idea of telling them the truth now, that he had never intended to endorse them this season. The unpleasant, nasty taste of disappointment in himself and guilt filled his mouth and he restlessly began to shift his weight from foot to foot. The champion of the region and he couldn’t even protect his brother from the most basic of things… His palms were sweating a little as he handed Gloria an envelope, and then his brother. Hop recreated Leon’s signature pose in frightening detail, his endorsement letter clutched between his pointer and middle finger in the hand he pointed to the sky. Leon watched him hauntedly. He felt like he was looking into some twisted mirror. Hop’s admiration could make him feel vanity like no other, but it could also crash his mood like no other. There was no in between. Today, for some reason, it was making him feel the latter.

“Yes! I won’t let you down, Lee! You’ll be seein’ me in the finals!” Hop declared, pointing at his brother. Leon just swallowed hard. Gloria was a little more reserved about her excitement, but he could see she too was thrilled in the way she trembled and her eyes practically glowed.

“Now, Hop,” Leon finally managed to find words through his dry as dust mouth. “I know you’ve got a tendency to obsess over little things, but you’ve got to let some of that go, okay? Gym challenge is about growin’ up and growin’ stronger. Poké Ball throws, striking poses, they’re all the theatrics, understand?” It was a hilariously watered-down version of the speech he wanted to give Hop. He wanted to just shake sense into Hop, if he was to be completely honest.

Hop paused and gave a nod once Leon had finished. “Oh, I know, I just want to make you feel more confident in me! Gloria!” Hop whipped around to face her. “Let’s battle! Let’s show Lee he’s made a good choice!”

“You’re on!” Gloria grinned.

“You did all of that on purpose,” Leon accused Magnolia once Gloria and Hop had left. They had shown him a rightfully passionate battle, but Hop had once again been felled by his childhood friend. He had seemed to take it well, but the stuttering in his words had betrayed his shame.

“You’d have never endorsed the poor chap otherwise,” Magnolia said simply. “You doubt him and you’re overprotective. Arceus knows what you’re so afraid of, though. He can’t even get to the more dangerous areas on his own without the right clearances. We’re not stupid. Everyone knows gym challengers need some protection, both from the environment and themselves. That friend of his should keep him straight too.”

“But why’d you have to go and mention it in front of ‘em like that? Couldn’t we have talked beforehand? Ugh,” Leon put a hand to his forehead and sat in a chair that had been jostled next to a desk. His frustration was more than what he was communicating to her. He was still battling the swirling storm of self-doubt, which only grew in strength as he knew he couldn’t talk about it. Talking of such an emotional matter was unbecoming of the Champion of Galar, he thought mutinously. “It’s not just that I’m worried about. Hop’s so… he just cares so much about everythin’. I just feel like he’s goin’ to get ripped to shreds out there.”

“There’s that overprotectiveness I was talkin’ about,” Magnolia smirked.

“Did I tell you about the Slumberin’ Weald? Those two bolted off into the Slumberin’ Weald to save a Wooloo. A Wooloo, Magnolia!”

“So? A Pokémon’s a pokémon, Mr. Champion.”

“What if I hadn’t found ‘em?” Leon demanded hotly, curling his lips slightly at her implication that he didn’t care for Wooloo. Of course, he cared for all pokémon! But this was the life of his brother he was talking about, as well as his friend!

“The only thing fatal about that scenario is the fact they had you and only you lookin’ for them,” Magnolia remarked scathingly. “You can’t find your way out of a wet paper bag, how on Earth did you find them in the Slumberin’ Weald?”

Leon sputtered in annoyance but couldn’t quite figure out just what he wanted to say. Probably because he knew she was right. He loathed that she was right.

“Anyway, onto other topics. When are you goin’ to marry Sonia?”

Leon choked on the very air in his lungs. “Marry? Sonia? What are you on about now, woman?” he asked shrilly.

“I’m old, I’m not stupid, that girl’s into you and she’s doin’ nothin’ with her life as my assistant. Give her some purpose, would you?” Magnolia shrugged.

“Alright, Magnolia, it’s been great,” Leon said as he got up and pushed the chair under the desk. Everything she had just said was an entire can of nothing he wanted to get into. Ever, not just right then. “I got to go do somethin’ champion over in Hammerlocke.”

“Like get hammered with your buddies?” Magnolia narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that why they call it Hammerlocke?”

“Oh my Arceus. I’m leaving. Goodbye, Magnolia.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t long before Gloria found herself on the train with Hop to Motostoke. It was where the Opening Ceremony for this season’s gym challenge would be held, as they all were, and all the up and coming gym challengers were expected to take part in it. Not that she minded. Although the idea of facing massive crowds unnerved her, she couldn’t shake an insatiable thirst deep down for the attention that being a gym challenger could bring. She was also just so glad Leon had finally given them their endorsements. Just in time for this season of the Major Leagues, too!

“I can’t believe it! We’re goin’ to Motostoke! That’s where Kabu, the Fire Gym Leader, is, you know,” Hop explained. He leaned back in his beige and red booth and folded his arms behind his head. His eyes closed and he gave a slight smile. He had such a pleasant smile. “He’s the third gym leader. But likes getting to host the introductions at his stadium every season.”

Gloria nodded thoughtfully. “Who’s the first, d’you know?”

Hop nodded. “’Course I know. That’s goin’ to be Milo. He specializes in Grass-types. Then there’s Nessa, with her Water-types… And of course Kabu, but after him… Bea, the Fightin’-type… Opal with her weird Fairy-types… Ah, I can’t seem to remember who’s in Circhester, but I know the last one! Raihan! Oh, oh, and before him there’s Piers!”

“Everyone knows Raihan,” Gloria scoffed sarcastically. With a smirk, she added, “Lots of people seem to think he’s goin’ to do Leon in this season, you know.”

“Ha!” Hop put a hand to the table and pumped a fist. “Not if I get to him first!”

The train lurched to an abrupt stop. Hop was shoved onto the table from his rather unstable position, and the drinks they had sitting on the table between them fell over and spilled across the wood. Hop cursed under his breath as he scrambled away from the spilled drink. Soda dribbled down his coat, staining the wool sticking out from his jacket’s interior with dark, sticky fluid. “Damn it,” he growled, “that’s just great…” Gloria would have been laughing but some soda had rolled down her legs too.

“We’re sorry to report, but the train’s been stopped by a flock of Wooloo on the tracks. We have rangers on the way now to try to safely clear them away,” came a nasally voice over the intercom. “If you would like to continue on your own, we are stopped near the Wild Area Station, and capable trainers are welcome to traverse the Wild Area to Motostoke. For those without pokémon, please remain in the train, as you will not be permitted to exit into the Wild Area.”

Hop grumbled. “Well, I think I’d like to do that, so I can maybe set up a camp and change my clothes,” he said.

“Besides, maybe there’s some cool pokémon out there,” Gloria pointed out. She had picked up some Poké Balls from the Wedgehurst Pokémon Center before boarding the train. “You do have Poké Balls on you, don’t you?”

“Of course!” Hop assured her. He finished gathering his things and stuffing his bag and then tossed it over his shoulder. He exited into the narrow aisle out of the train and Gloria followed. Once out of the train, they had to walk just a few feet to reach the actual entrance to the Wild Area Station. Gloria glanced up ahead and couldn’t help but giggle at the enormous flock of Wooloo that had converged on the train tracks. They looked like one large mass of fluff rather than individuals.

“Hey, Hop, want to let your Wooloo out to play?” Gloria joked.

“Ha, ha,” Hop rolled his eyes. “Wooloo gets to stay in her Poké Ball unless we’re indoors or I’m watchin’ her close from now on. Bloody Wooloo about killed me that day.” Under his breath he added, “Literally…”

They checked in with the man behind the help desk in the station, and as they each had at least one usable Pokémon, were cleared to enter the Wild Area unassisted. Both stood at the edge of the massive swathe of untouched land and Gloria listened as Hop sucked in a deep breath of the earthy, wild atmosphere.

“Alright! Gloria, I’ll race you to Motostoke!” he challenged, whirling to face her. He stuck his hand out to shake hers. “We’ll see who catches the most pokémon on the way! You ready?”

Gloria went to shyly say that she’d prefer it if they traveled together, but at her slow response, Hop snickered at her and then tore off into the vast wilderness. Left in the dust, Gloria sighed and wearily grasped at Sobble’s Poké Ball on her belt straps. No matter how much she tried to open up to him, he always seemed so painfully oblivious. She knew he was dealing with a lot, what with the Champion of Galar as his older brother, but Gloria couldn’t help the ache that seemed to come as a package deal with her complicated, messy feelings for him. He’s just excited, she chided herself, let him have this. You can worry him with your stupid feelings later.

And with that, she trudged off into the hinterland, already at a much slower pace than Hop. He had already disappeared from view. Unbeknownst to either of them, a certain redhead had also been on that train, and had watched them both with nostalgic pangs. Sonia drew a hand across her hair to pull a stray strand back. She had decided to take the train to Motostoke that day to see if she could find anything to research there. She and her gran, Magnolia, had had a rather nasty argument that morning. As usual, Magnolia was telling her that she was doing nothing with her life, that she was pointless, the typical ramblings. All while Sonia slaved away at Magnolia’s laboratory as her assistant. Sonia had lost her temper at last, unwinding like a compressed spring on the elderly woman. She felt a little bad about it. She was old enough to act civilized, but she hadn’t that day.

She sighed. Watching Gloria and Hop reminded her of when she, Leon, Nessa, Piers, and Raihan had set out on their gym challenge. Leon had always been the star of the group, even long before he earned himself the champion title in his premier debut into the gym challenge. He was lively and charismatic, capable of making fast friends with virtually anyone, and being only ten years old, he had an endearing innocence about him. Sonia had been eleven herself, while Nessa was even younger, just nine. Raihan had matched Leon in age and Piers was only a year older, and as such, the three were thicker than thieves most of the way, Piers occasionally following at a distance, while Nessa and Sonia tended to flock together. But Sonia couldn’t help but gravitate toward Leon whenever he just so happened to be around.

In fact, when Leon had just started, he bumped into Sonia leaving to enter the Wild Area. He had demanded a battle right then and there. Although he’d never admit it, Sonia was certain he had done it to impress her. She smirked, remembering how he had tossed out a young Charmander, and she released a strong Drizzile. The look on Leon’s face as he realized the mistake he had just made was priceless. She would later learn he had received the Charmander only a few hours before and it was Leon’s only pokémon at the time. But instead of backing down, Leon fought hard. Not that it mattered. Sonia’s Drizzile made quick work of it with a simple Water Gun.

Leon had been embarrassed by being beaten so easily, but Sonia had helped him to the Pokémon Center, and from then on, they battled whenever they met. Sonia was never able to pull another win over him after that. She came close their second battle, but he stole it out just from under her at the last second. Somehow, Leon grew by leaps and bounds, while she felt like she grew by teetering footsteps.

Then, she sighed, he won that damned championship, beat her in the first match of the semifinals, and it was like their closeness faded. Although he was still friendly enough with her whenever he happened to run into her and she had his phone number, it was difficult to try to talk to him. He seemed untouchable, on another plane, and she always felt trying to call him would be pointless or just drag him down. He was always busy, after all; he didn’t even come home but perhaps one to three times a year. She had been pleasantly surprised to see how much time he was spending with Hop just a few days ago.

She looked at the ground sadly and scuffed her feet. She had given away that Drizzile—an Inteleon following the gym challenge—and the rest of her battling team a year or two after that humiliating semifinals defeat. It had become clear to her that battling would not be her forte. The only problem was, she never found one after that, either. She still felt lost as ever all these years later. Part of her wanted to be angry at Leon, for having stolen a path out from under her feet, but another part of her knew that was silly. She could have definitely stayed in the rat race and kept battling and pushing for that title. But she just didn’t have what it took. So, she had thrown herself into being Magnolia’s assistant, doing her best to force herself into the role; it was the only other one she knew.

Her and Magnolia’s fight that morning, however, had reawakened those old anxieties. She was rubbish as a trainer, she was rubbish as a professor, so what now? Perhaps she would just have to go back to what she had always done. Work harder than everyone else around her to try to gain the same achievements. She pulled her jacket a little tighter and began to walk out across the Wild Area. Though she didn’t have a true battling team anymore, she still had Yamper, and he could help her out of tougher situations well enough.

Chapter Text

Hop snapped his fingers and let out an excited holler. “Yes!” he cried. “A Rookidee! Perfect! Corviknight is awesome!” he exclaimed, remembering how Gloria had corrected him a few days ago. He walked over to pick up the ball and gave it a wide smile. Grookey bounced up his back and oohed at the ball in Hop’s grasp.

“Welcome to the team, buddy,” Hop announced. He gave Grookey a reassuring pat on the back. “You did so well, Grookey, even though you were at the disadvantage! Now we’ve got Rookidee, Wooloo, you, and Growlithe!” He clipped the ball to the straps dangling from his belt, and Grookey excitedly squeaked, bouncing from one shoulder of his to the other.

“I’m starved!” Hop declared to his little friend. “What say you about some curry, huh?” Grookey hopped to the ground and danced in excitement. “Alright, alright,” Hop laughed, “let’s do it, then.”

Setting up the tent was the worst part, but thankfully, he had gotten better at it. The trip was taking him a lot longer than he thought it would initially. He supposed that challenging Gloria to race across dozens of miles to the next city probably wasn’t his smartest choice yet. Maybe she’d listen to him asking for him to call it a draw… Or maybe he’d get lucky and she’d be slower than him. It was a distant hope, of course; Gloria was as competitive as they came. Maybe that was why she was so irritable with Leon… As he mused the thoughts to himself, he finished setting up the campfire, and then finessed a pot overtop it.

“Now how did I do this before…” he mumbled with a frown.

After digging in his round, green bag for a cookbook, he rifled through the pages. Thankfully, he was much better at the actual cooking than he was at setting up the equipment, and it was just mere minutes before the large serving of curry was finished. Grookey greedily sniffed at the pot, but Hop scooped it up. “Fire’s hot, dude,” he chuckled, “don’t get burned now, I don’t have any Burn Heals at the moment.”

He tossed out his other pokémon. Wooloo quickly contented herself with some grass; Rookidee landed on Hop’s shoulder and peered curiously into the pot. Growlithe began to chase his own tail almost immediately, barking and carrying on. Hop laid four bowls out to the right of his campfire and then scooped a bit of curry into each one. He got everyone’s attention with a few clicks of the teeth and was able to give each one their own serving, deftly steering everyone to their own bowl.

Wooloo didn’t seem all that interested, and Rookidee didn’t eat much, but Growlithe and Grookey destroyed their portions… and then demolished the leftovers from the other two.

“Guess I don’t have to throw any away at least,” Hop shrugged as the pleading eyes of his Growlithe stared back at him. The pokémon pawed at his leg, his claws catching briefly on the fabric. Chuckling, Hop opened the flap to his tent and entered it, calling all his pokémon to follow. “C’mon, you lot, let’s rest for a while!” It was only just beginning to get dark outside, but he had been traveling all day. He was used to traveling long distances on foot, but the Wild Area was an entirely different beast.

Hop tucked himself into his sleeping bag. Its insides were cozy and warm thanks to a thick layer of wool and a fluffy pillow built into the fabric. Grookey bounded inside after him and settled into place on a part of the pillow Hop wasn’t using. Rookidee perched on one of the tent’s supporting poles, tucking its head into its feathers, and shutting its eyes. Growlithe simply curled up in a ball on the floor. Wooloo was the last to wander in, and she plopped down at Hop’s side and fell asleep in mere seconds. Hop smiled warmly and touched his hand to her wool.

He and Wooloo had been through so much together. He loved that he finally was able to go on that adventure with her he had always dreamed of. There had been a time a few years back where, as he and Wooloo sat together analyzing Leon’s matches on the DVR, Wooloo had abruptly ran off. It had been after Hop spent some time gushing over Leon’s Charizard and she had done an adorable impression of it. When she had gone missing, he had searched high and low across the nearby towns for her exhaustively, fearing that he had run her off by praising Leon’s Charizard too much and not paying her enough attention. Nighttime had been drawing near when he finally got her back from a Corviknight Cabbie that had been coming to take her home. Breathless and tired from the long day of searching, he had promised her he would take her all the way to the championships and hugged her tightly. They fell asleep on the ride back to Postwick in the Corviknight Cab.

He had every intention on keeping that promise.

Gloria impatiently checked the time on her Rotom Phone. She had beaten him to Motostoke by a longshot. It was almost unreal. She had never known him to be slow to anything before. She cracked a resigned, lazy grin to herself. “I think champion’s little brother might have overestimated himself for his first visit through the Wild Area,” she mumbled exhaustedly to nobody in particular. She still was a little upset he’d raced off ahead without her.

She had been hanging out in the Pokémon Center’s café for a while, figuring Hop would show there once he arrived. Surely, his team would need some healing after such a long stint in the wilds of Galar. She grew bored of waiting after a few hours though and went to exit only to bump nose-first into him. She rubbed her nose and uttered a nasally, “Hey, Hop.”

“Hey, Gloria,” he chuckled, shaking his head a little. After a brief pause and rub of his own face, he added, “That hurt.”

“Took you long enough,” Gloria rolled her eyes and teased. She pushed past him and out the Pokémon Center.

“I got to heal my team real quick, but I’ll be right back,” Hop told her. “And then—be ready! I bet I’ve caught more than you since I took longer!”

“Ohh,” Gloria’s eyes lit up mischievously, “is that right? Well go heal ‘em up, then.” She couldn’t help her fierce competitiveness. Her ambitious nature was not lost on him, though; he returned within just a few short minutes and whipped out his Pokédex eagerly to show her the pokémon he had caught. He still wanted his partners to rest, and that’s why he didn’t release his actual Pokémon, he reasoned at her quizzical expression. Gloria nodded, noting he had caught a Rookidee and Growlithe to add to his team.

“You and me are about even then, mate,” Gloria said simply, trying to shrug off the tang of defeat. She had the same number of pokémon as him, so she supposed they were tied. To her, though, a tie was the same as a loss. Smoothing her voice, she went on to say, “I still got Sobble of course, then I caught a Vulpix, Rookidee, and a Yamper.”

“I almost had a Yamper!” Hop complained. “Thing ran away though…”

“Hey, you two!”

Gloria and Hop circled to look behind them. They noted Sonia waving at them as she approached. “Congratulations on gettin’ to Motostoke so quick,” she said. “I almost forgot, I wanted to give somethin’ to you two. It’s a common League Card for Lee, could be helpful.” She handed one to Gloria, who eagerly flipped the card back and forth to take in all its details.

“No thanks,” Hop said, “I collect all of Lee’s cards. I’ve got every common and rare one from since he joined the gym challenge!”

Leon is known far and wide for taking part in the Gym Challenge at the tender age of 10 years old—and even more so for claiming victory in the Champion Cup on his first attempt. Ever since that victory, he and his partner Charizard have remained unbeaten in both League and exhibition matches. He is called “the Unbeatable Champion” and is a hero to many trainers. He has but one weakness: a dismal sense of direction. But don't worry—wherever he ends up, he makes sure everyone has a champion time!

She swore her eye twitched at the last sentence on the card’s back. On the front, however, the card sported a much more forlorn-looking façade. Leon was sitting on a bench or chair, staring past the camera, with his elbows leaned against his knees. He looked like a tired man contemplating something difficult. Oh, I’m sure your life is so hard, she thought, fighting off a sneer.

The sound of heavy, beating wings drew her attention and Hop cackled wildly as Leon on his beloved Charizard landed behind Sonia. Sonia shouted in fear and ducked. Gloria snorted amusedly at her frantic response and brought her hands up to cover her face. The last thing she wanted was Leon to comment on her laughing. “Why, no need to fret, little lady,” Leon gloated, puffing out his chest. “Your Champion awaits.”

Sonia whirled around and jabbed a finger in his direction. “You! You!”

“Me what?” Leon asked innocently. Charizard blew a small puff of smoke at her face.

She broke into genuine laughter and waved the smoke from her face. “You are somethin’ else, Lee!”

“You got that right,” Leon reassured her teasingly. “So, little bro and…”

“Gloria,” Gloria filled in for him with a deadpan expression.

“Right! So little bro and Gloria, you two know the basics, I’m sure, but don’t forget about items, alright?” He slid off the back of his Charizard finally and pulled a couple of trinkets from his pockets. One appeared to be a necklace with a beautiful, sapphire teardrop-shaped gem hanging from it. The other was a gleaming emerald seed. He gave the seed to Hop, and the necklace to Gloria. “Those power up Grass- and Water-type moves respectively ‘cause they make the pokémon feel special. Different items do different things. Just remember they can’t use stuff like Potions, they don’t really know how that works. Tried giving Charizard one once.”

Charizard huffed and growled, averting his eyes.

“Yeah, that’s one trip to the Pokémon Center I’ll never forget either, buddy.”

Hop thanked Leon enthusiastically, and then cast an expectant gaze at Gloria. She shuffled her feet uncomfortably. She had to admit, Leon did seem to be doing everything in his power to make the start of their journey easier… Maybe he wasn’t doing all of this out of vanity for once. “Thanks, Leon,” she smiled weakly at him, and that seemed to cause Hop to beam at her encouragingly. At least that made up for the wounded feeling of swallowing her pride to thank Leon.

“Now, off to the Openin’ Ceremony with you! Get registered! Then get registered at the hotel! Remember to sleep once in a while out and about, though, got it? Though, Hop, you look like you slept half the day away. And on your head,” Leon teased, going to ruffle Hop’s hair even further. “Where’s that common hop hairstyle at, hm?”

And the moment of weakness was over. She shot the champion a glare even though he didn’t see it.

“I forgot a brush! And… hair gel…” Hop defended himself hotly and pushed Leon away, finger-brushing a few errant strands of hair straight.

“Alright, I’m off,” Leon said before seeming to become aware of a growing crowd. “Right, right,” he mumbled under his breath. Gloria could only shake her head incredulously. The whole region loves him, and he gets annoyed with it. Wow. He cleared his throat some, struck his signature pose, and shouted, “Good day, Motostoke! I’m afraid I’ve got to run for now, but make sure to visit the Openin’ Ceremony tomorrow, and all of you have a champion time while you’re at it!”

With that, Charizard scooped him up onto his shoulders, and they disappeared into the skies.

“Man, I really wanted his autograph!” Gloria heard someone from the crowd complain.

“Does your brother not know the meaning of incognito?” Gloria asked tersely, a poor shot at a joke. She wanted to ease away her frustration.

“What’s he got to go incognito for? Look at all those fans!” Hop rebutted. “Must be great.”

Gloria wondered if Hop hadn’t seen the same response from Leon she had. He had clearly been annoyed with them. She figured if he disliked the ‘annoying’ fans converging on him when he didn’t want it, he should have gone incognito. Though, his love for the spotlight probably wouldn’t allow it. Deciding the petty argument that might result should she voice her thoughts wasn’t worth it, she sighed. “Yeah, I suppose.”

Sonia had already begun to walk away by the time they decided to finally enter the Motostoke Stadium, where they would register with their endorsements to be part of this season’s gym challenge, and be featured in the Opening Ceremony the following day.

Upon entering, there was a lot to take in. There were quite a lot more gym challengers than Gloria had expected. Not a lot of them really stuck out to her, but she did take note of a few. The first was a dark-haired girl in almost entirely black leather and pink getup, followed by two severely over-dressed individuals in black and pink clothing to match hers. Except their faces were covered in paint, and their hair ranged from being bald to spiky and pink. They also were carrying gaudy instruments half the size of their bodies. The girl was utterly unfazed by them, it seemed, to the point she was simply scrolling her Rotom Phone while a pudgy little Morpeko rested at her feet.

Another was a guy dressed in almost all pink and purple, with platinum blonde hair that sat upright atop his head. He was leaned against a sign, his eyes closed, one leg to the floor and the other at an angle with said sign. He looked absolutely ridiculous in every sense of the word, but perhaps he was trying to play a theme, she thought. It wasn’t unheard of for gym challengers to decorate themselves to match their favorite pokémon or type, or even just to play a persona. Even if everyone had to assume a standard uniform for official League matches, having a sense of style was one way to win one’s popularity with the crowd. While popularity didn’t guarantee anyone a win, it certainly made performing much easier.

But the third? Nothing could top the third. A person was standing over two children, talking to them, except… obscuring his entire head was a massive Poké Ball mask, with a ballcap chilling on the top. His clothes were a flat blue, long-sleeved T-shirt, and their pants were long jeans. At first, she thought he had paper-white skin, but as she drew a little nearer, she realized it was a white bodysuit beneath the clothing and mask! She reared back.

“Some of these people sure are a bit… thematic, aren’t they,” Gloria asked, affronted. When she got no response, she looked back to where Hop had been just a few minutes ago and realized he was long gone. He was standing at the helpdesk all the way at the back of the lobby of the stadium, waving at her animatedly.

“Gloria! Get a move on, would you?” he called teasingly.

 She quickly followed him and registered with the desk. The man asked her for a number to represent her in the leagues. The numbers had no functional use; they were merely a convention from days of old, when the sportiest thing humans did was kick around a speckled ball. So, there could be multiple gym challengers with the same number in one season. She settled on the number 229. It was a randomized number. She never liked the idea of doing anything clever with her number since it was rude to talk of what a person’s league number meant anyway. It was, however, perfectly acceptable to ask what someone’s league number was. She turned to Hop.

“So, what’d you pick?” she asked.

“Oh, 189,” he responded quickly. Per the unspoken rule, he didn’t elaborate on it any further. “229, huh? I’ll be sure to remember that! Anyway, now that we’re all registered, maybe we should check out the competition, huh? Talk to some challengers?”

“Sure,” Gloria shrugged. Sizing up the competition wasn’t a bad idea. “Want to stick together for it?”

“Yeah, sure,” Hop nodded. He gestured vaguely toward the same pink-clad challenger Gloria had noticed earlier. “Why not start with him? Not a huge crowd around him.”

“Somethin’ tells me there may be a reason for that,” Gloria wondered aloud thoughtfully.

“Oh, rubbish, I’m sure he’s fine,” Hop smiled and began to lope over to the lonesome challenger. Gloria followed in short order.

“Hi there!” Hop opened, giving the challenger a wave. The guy’s eyelids twitched but did not budge.

“Hello,” the challenger answered. “Now, be on your way and don’t waste my time.”

Gloria was taken aback. She hadn’t expected that attitude to come from the man in pink. She had figured he was playing a Psychic-type or Fairy-type theme… While she was speechless, Hop tried to make friends regardless.

“Oh, come now!” Hop said disapprovingly. “That’s no way to greet other gym challengers, now is it? What’s your name?”

The guy’s eyes finally opened and narrowed in annoyance at Hop. He pushed off from the sign to stand upright and took a deliberate step forward. Hop seemed a little intimidated once he realized this person was taller than he was. The guy in pink brushed a strand of hair that had fallen in his face away. “Not that it’s of any importance to you, but my name is Bede. I was endorsed by the chairman himself, the very man who created the Pokémon League. And you…” Bede cocked his head and gave an unsettling, gleeful grin. “My, my, you are the champion’s little brother, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, name’s Hop,” Hop said. He was still trying to remain cheerful. Hop was under the misguided impression that this guy was trying to be friendly now and Gloria could tell that just wasn’t the case. She clenched her hands into fists almost instinctively.

“Gloria,” Gloria introduced herself through gritted teeth as she stood to Hop’s right. Snidely, she added, “and you sound like a riot, Bede.”

“Well, Hop, Gloria, you two were endorsed by the Chairman’s showpiece,” Bede sneered, crossed his arms, and moved back to a respectful distance. He had all but ignored Gloria’s contribution. “Leon is nothing more than the Chairman’s Boltund who greets everyone kindly at the door. Everyone shows up to pet it while he keeps everyone at the party safe and entertained. Understand? I am far more important than either of you two ever could be. Now do yourselves both a favor and do not bother me again. It’s criminal,” he said, resuming his position leaned against the sign behind him, eyes shut once more. He looks so peaceful for someone so vile, Gloria thought. “Absolutely criminal, of you two to come by wasting my time like this.”

“Yes, we can see you’re so very busy,” Gloria hissed, rolling her eyes. “Over here marinatin’ in your pink costume alone. C’mon, Hop.”

Hop pointed a finger at Bede and nearly jabbed his cheek with it. “Now you listen here, you bloody—”

“Hop!” Gloria spat. “Leave him be, he’s not worth your breath.”

“Listen to your keeper, champion’s little brother,” Bede said without opening his eyes back up. A devilish smirk had crossed his lips. “Might need to keep her by your side if you want to make it later into this challenge.”

Hop squared his shoulders and stalked away. “Fine,” he growled. “What a dick!” he spat once he was out of earshot of Bede. Once he stalked off, Gloria gave Bede a murderous glare, infuriated by how she knew he couldn’t see it. Hop was right. He was a dick.

She’d relish mopping the floor with him next time she saw him.

Chapter Text

Hop and Gloria had spent another hour or so mingling with various other challengers. They didn’t run into anyone else quite as unpleasant as Bede, and Hop was so grateful for that. He had heard challengers could act cutthroat with their competitors before, but he hadn’t expected it from someone dressed like… that. It had been so bizarre. He supposed it was his fault for judging a book by its cover, though. Roses have thorns and all that.

Victor had been another challenger. He looked eerily similar to Gloria, and the two had joked about it. “You two lookin’ like long-lost twins or somethin’,” Hop had teased. “How old are you, mate?”

Victor, fitting a gray beanie over his head, proudly said, “Fifteen. How old’s you two? I was endorsed by Gym Leader Melony!” His happy expression faded as he said that, and then he scuffed his shoes against the floor. “Well, before her son took over Circhester Stadium, that is.”

He told them about how Gordie, the current Rock-type gym leader of Circhester, had battled fervently with Melony, the previous Ice-type gym leader of Circhester, for control of the stadium. Apparently, Melony had wanted Gordie to succeed her, but as Circhester had historically always been an Ice-type gym, even before the introduction of Dynamax and the stadiums to the League, she wanted him to keep it that way. He had adamantly refused and then challenged her again and again to battle over the title. Melony’s conviction finally faltered, and she lost to Gordie, and as per their agreement, he became the new gym leader. Hop had rubbed the back of his head uncomfortably as he listened to the story.

“Well, that doesn’t sound right at all of Gordie,” Gloria offered halfheartedly after hearing the story.

“Yeah, well, Melony says it’s alright now,” Victor shrugged. He didn’t quite sound like it was okay. “She’s moved to Hammerlocke for the time bein’ and she told everyone in Circhester to respect Gym Leader Gordie, so we do. He’s not so bad as a gym leader. His music’s nothin’ to Piers’ level, but he’s decent, and his battles are pretty fun to watch. But…” Victor smiled awkwardly. “I do want to train under him and see if maybe one day I can turn it back to an Ice-type gym.”

“Wow, you must have a lot of respect for Melony,” Gloria nodded encouragingly at him. “And I don’t blame you. Gordie sounds like real fun.” She rolled her eyes to emphasize the point.

“Yeah, that’s an awesome dream!” Hop insisted, a little starry-eyed. Maybe he was biased due to his own ambitions in chasing down Leon’s title, but hearing about Victor’s desire to rise to that of a gym leader was inspiring. “You chase it!”

Victor blinked in surprise. “Oh… Thank you.”

All their attention was stolen from Victor when gleeful oohs and ahs carried loudly from across the room. Someone dressed in a bright violet outfit, splashed with what looked like a random assortment of other bright colors on the side, was standing over a Slowpoke and holding their hands out. The Slowpoke followed the wobbly movements of the person’s hand gestures… which were meaningless to Hop until he saw the floating Repeat Balls above their heads. That was what everyone was gawking at. The person—Hop guiltily couldn’t figure out if they were male or female—tapped their comically tall top hat with their free hand. They had long, straight blond hair that cascaded down their back and flowed with every slight movement.

“Thank you, thank you! Isn’t Slowpoke nifty?” they grinned at the gathering crowd.

“That’s the Slowpoke doin’ that?” Hop questioned as he and Gloria wandered over to them. She had a curious intrigue painted on her face as she scanned the odd magician up and down.

“Oh, of course,” they answered Hop dismissively. “You don’t think I’m over here levitatin’ anythin’ do you? That would be silly.” They dropped their hands to their hips. The Slowpoke didn’t seem to get the memo, as it continued to stare at the Repeat Balls and they remained suspended in midair. “Name’s Avery.” At Hop’s hesitant handshake, Avery chuckled. “He or him pronouns. Don’t worry, I get that look a lot.”

“Nice to meet you, Avery,” Gloria said uncertainly as she shook his hand after Hop. “So, I take it you focus on Psychic-types then?”

“Right you are,” he nodded. “I was endorsed by Gym Leader Opal of Ballonlea. I was going to train in her gym to succeed her, but she insisted I…” He paused and took a deep, tired breath. “That I wasn’t ‘pink enough.’ And that I needed to do the bloody challenge first, anyways. I supposed it would broaden my mind to do it and maybe prove to her I’m worthy of being her successor even if I’m not ‘pink.’”

Gloria and Hop shared a devious grin with one another and then laughed. “What, she want somethin’ like Pink Princess over there?” Gloria teasingly jabbed a thumb in Bede’s direction. Hop didn’t understand how he could possibly still be just… standing there, but he was. He shook his head. What a freak. Hop had just wanted to try to get to know him, and he’d bitten his head off and mocked the champion while he was at it. “He’s plenty pink. An arsehole, but indeed pink.”

Avery laughed. Slowpoke’s brain finally seemed to catch up to current events, as the Repeat Balls clacked to the floor, and it tilted its head up at Avery. Hop and Gloria exchanged their names with him and after a little more chatting, they learned Avery was remarkably intelligent. He had been a stellar student and excelled in school, even opting to stay in it for longer than most bothered to, and he was taking on the gym challenge at nineteen years of age. Shortly after him, they met an odd girl named Klara. Hop couldn’t glean much from the unsettling interaction with her than she focused on Poison-types and had been endorsed by Milo. She had unnervingly large pupils and as she spoke, Hop had been guiltily eager for her to stop so he could escape their stare.

After that, Gloria had complained that she was tired and hungry, so she left to head for the Budew Drop-In, a hotel nearby Motostoke Stadium. Gym challengers were offered a few nights free every time an Opening Ceremony drew near. Kabu had been hosting them for years and it had become a Motostoke tradition. Still wanting to talk to a few other competitors, Hop had waved her a sincere goodbye, failing to notice when she was visibly dejected by him not wanting to go with her. Once she slipped from view, his attention was drawn to the girl in pink and black, surrounded by a posse of what Hop knew could only be Team Yell… which meant that the challenger in question had to be from Spikemuth.

“Hi, there!” Hop waved nervously at her. He had never met anyone from Spikemuth before, but he had seen challengers from Spikemuth on TV, as well as their rabid fans, Team Yell. She looked at him uninterestedly. The Team Yell goons flanking her on all sides gripped the obnoxiously large instruments tighter and one clutched a megaphone close to his lips. Hop held up his hands harmlessly. “Hey, hey, easy. I’m just curious… tryin’ to get to know everybody, y’know.”

She jolted in surprise. She pointed a finger at him and then slowly back at herself. “You… want to get to know me?”

Hop laughed. “I mean, that’s what I said, innit?”

“I’m not used to people wantin’ to get to know me, much less so with this lot followin’ me ‘round,” she mused as she flicked a lazy thumb at Team Yell. One of them gave her an affronted huff. “You must not be from up here. Who’re you and where you from?”

“Name’s Hop,” he answered dutifully. With a wink, he added, “Champion Leon’s younger brother.”

“Oh. Well, my name’s Marnie. I’m Gym Leader Piers’ little sister.”

Her deadpanned reaction had been far from what he expected. He titled his head a little at her and frowned. “You… don’t sound very excited.”

“No, no,” she sighed and waved a hand at him. “You’re the champion’s little brother, that’s cool. Really. Just… got a lot on my mind. This isn’t my first gym challenge, y’know, and since I am the gym leader’s little sister, I’m expectin’ it to be a bit of a ride from start to finish. I kind of envy your enthusiasm. You seem like you love havin’ someone to live up to.”

Hop floundered for something to say. He didn’t understand why she seemed so down… Who didn’t love that sort of attention? But before he could get anything out, she groaned as one of the Team Yell guys began to yell through a microphone at him. Hop couldn’t make out a word they said, but he reared back in confusion all the same.

“I’m sorry, I better go,” Marnie muttered. She snapped something at the group of Team Yell too quickly for Hop to understand, and then they trudged after her out the Motostoke Stadium lobby. He stared after her as she left. He hadn’t meant to offend her… He truly did want to know more about Spikemuth, and understand what she had meant. Feeling less and less enthused about meeting other challengers, Hop decided to call it quits and head to the Budew Drop-In for the night. He wanted to sit down and have a chat with Wooloo and his other pokémon already.

Hop yawned as he walked through the front doors of the Budew Drop-In. Exhausted after the day’s events, he was looking forward to a nice rest in something other than a sleeping bag. The universe seemed keen on not giving it to him, though, as he was greeted with a chaotic scene in the first floor of the hotel. He blinked, watching as a familiar, burly man from Team Yell was battling in the middle of the hotel’s lobby against Gloria and her Sobble… and Rookidee? Were they having a double battle?

Whatever it was, it was over by the time he made it to the upper level of the lobby. He had been able to hear Marnie from the entrance, but as she made his way up, she practically screamed her lungs out. Gloria’s, as well as the Team Yell member’s, attention was drawn to her immediately. Even the pokémon battling halted. “Oi! What d’you lot think you’re doin’ botherin’ the gym challengers tryin’ to register here?” she demanded heatedly. “Others are allowed to do the gym challenge! Not just me! See, this is why Spikemuth’s got so many problems!”

“Sorry, Marnie,” the burly man responded sheepishly. “I just…”

“You didn’t just anythin’,” Marnie growled. After a tense, awkward silence, she sighed and hung her head. “I appreciate ya lot for supportin’ me and Spikemuth, but this is a bit too far, okay? Now get on home. Let us rest for the night.”

The clown posse of Team Yell goons dispersed, and Hop looked between Gloria and Marnie. “So, I see I missed a lot,” he shyly tried to break the silence.

“Nothin’ much, really,” Marnie gave a non-committal shrug. “That’s just… Team Yell. Follow me around like my personal fanbase, they do. They mean well, but they can be a bit… much, yeah.” Marnie looked to Gloria. “I met your friend there, Hop, but I’m not sure we met. My name’s Marnie.”

Gloria dipped her head respectfully and stuck out her hand. “My name’s Gloria, I’m Hop’s friend. We come from Postwick.”

“Endorsed by the champion himself, yeah,” Marnie nodded. She still looked utterly bored, even though she was clearly making the effort to sound interested. “I’m lookin’ forward to facin’ you both some time.”

The man sitting behind the desk nearby cleared his throat obnoxiously, and Gloria and Marnie whipped their heads to face him. “Sorry!” Gloria spluttered and she moved over to the desk hurriedly.

“It’s alright, you kids are always a little riled up about this time,” the man yawned and waved his hand dismissively, despite looking quite irritated. Hop realized that his gaze was resting squarely on Marnie then. He muttered something under his breath that Hop couldn’t make out. He glowered at the man and gave Marnie an encouraging smile.

“I’m lookin’ forward to facin’ you at some point, too!” he said as he fell into step next to her, waiting his term to register. She didn’t smile back at him, but at least she didn’t look so bored anymore.

Hop registered once Gloria and Marnie were done. He had been headed straight for bed after all of that noise, but Sonia’s familiar voice called out across the lobby to him and Gloria. “Hop! Gloria! Would you mind havin’ a quick chin-wag with me?”

“I’d prefer to have a chin-wag with my bed, to be honest,” Hop muttered under his breath. He loved talking to Sonia, he often had found himself prattling away hours at her side during his odd jobs in Wedgehurst, but he just wasn’t feeling in the mood to talk anymore that day. Still, he didn’t want to upset her. He perked up and responded audibly with, “Sure thing, Sonia!” He jogged back down the stairs and stopped just ahead of her. Only then did he become aware of the large bronze statue splitting the stairs connecting the two levels of the lobby. Gloria soon followed with Marnie cautiously on her heels.

“Have you heard of the legend of the Darkest Day?” Sonia asked them once they gathered around her. She gestured to the statue. A male figure stood tall, pointing a jagged, ornate sword at the ceiling. An ovular shield was looped around his left arm, with three sharp points angled toward the ceiling. The shield tapered to a point at its bottom as well. He was dressed in a suit of armor, but it was unlike any Hop had ever seen in a history textbook, that was for sure. The helmet had two thin, sharp points reaching from the top and his grieves were jagged with thick, intimidating iron spikes. Perhaps at the time they were intimidating at least; to Hop, this man looked ridiculous.

“I’ve heard it mentioned in passin’,” Gloria said, “but I can’t say I really know the actual legend itself…”

Hop had heard of it, though. “Yeah, I have. Lee told me about it a few times, actually. Mostly as a story to scare me when I was a real little though.”

Marnie shook her head. “I don’t know any details, just know that it was a thing that happened, apparently.”

Sonia nodded thoughtfully. “Interestin’ how a story gets warped over the years. To be honest, there’s so much inconsistency out there about it, from what I’ve been readin’. This statue here is supposedly the hero that saved Galar from the Darkest Day. A single honorable knight, sporting an enchanted sword and shield, dressed in mythical armor, who faced every Dynamaxed pokémon across the land until no more remained.” She paused and pursed her lips. “Of course, enchantments aren’t real, and the myth his armor represented is just that. Myth. And from personal experience, I can tell you lot that no measly sword or shield would measure up to even a Dynamax Magikarp, much less Dynamaxed creatures across the land.”

“So… nobody really knows what actually happened?” Gloria pressed.

“Not really. The only thing consistent throughout the stories is that on the Darkest Day, the skies were black with storm clouds and pokémon Dynamaxed wildly out of control, and the people of the time were unsure of how to handle Dynamaxed pokémon. Galar was just a tiny settlement at the time and could have easily been destroyed on accident by wild Dynamax pokémon,” she sighed, “but how they actually handled the problem… that varies wickedly from source to source.” Sonia gave them all somewhat of a cocky grin. “That, I think, is what I’m goin’ to try to figure out on my adventure!”

Hop blinked at her, and then gave the statue another once-over. “That sounds awesome, Sonia,” he said in the most forced, sincerest way he could manage. He didn’t want to sound so negative, but how did Sonia expect to unravel such a legend that even the most esteemed archaeologists and historians couldn’t? He had known her since as long as he could remember. Day in and day out, Sonia toiled away in Magnolia’s Lab, performing menial tasks for her. He knew Sonia was smart, he just also knew she was difficult to motivate… He didn’t want to think this project was impossible, just that if it were, it would take an astounding amount of willpower he’d never seen Sonia exhibit.

“My gran won’t be able to call me any sort of names once I figure this out,” she added smugly.

Hop rubbed the back of his head nervously. He had often listened to Sonia vent about Magnolia’s criticisms before. He wished Magnolia wouldn’t be so hard on Sonia… “That really was a great story, Sonia, thanks for sharin’. I’m beat though, I think I’m goin’ to go to bed.”

“That’s alright,” Sonia nodded, “rest well, Hop, big day tomorrow!”

With that, Hop took his leave. He didn’t really notice that Gloria and Marnie stayed, but wouldn’t have cared much if he had. He grasped the room key in his pocket, feeling the card’s plastic between his fingers, and looked forward to getting to relax in a room with his pokémon. His mind raced with thoughts about the following day. It would be his first time in a real, actual stadium, full of people! And to think he’d be battling in front of massive crowds like that soon after… It made his spine tingle with excitement.

He couldn’t wait to show everyone what he and his team could do!

Chapter Text

Exiting the hall into the lobby of the Budew Drop-In, Bede had expected there to be nobody there. He had made sure to rise early to leave hopefully prior to anyone else waking up. Yet, he was wrong. In the open floor of the lobby’s upper level was the same boy who had spoken to him yesterday. He knew his name of course; Hop was nearly as famous as his champion brother, since they had little care for modesty in public. Such carelessness could be costly, Bede thought in amusement. He leaned against the hallway doorframe and watched carefully to take in Hop’s every move.

Hop had a Poké Ball clutched in his right hand and would lean just slightly to the floor with his knees bent. His left hand would be used to steady his right as it reared back, and when he finally went to pitch the ball at the back of the statue dividing the stairs, his right leg would step far forward and cause him to stumble just slightly. Bede couldn’t help but to cover his mouth tp try and stifle a laugh. Is he really practicing how to throw a Poké Ball? Bede thought in cruel delight. He’s even more pathetic than I imagined!

Bede cleared his throat and stamped a foot to the floor to simulate him walking into the room and then strode past the other trainer. Hop quickly snatched the Poké Ball from the floor and fell still, watching Bede critically as he headed for the stairwell. Hop looked as if he wanted to say something, but kept his mouth shut.

Not so tough when his little friend or Leon’s not with him, I see, Bede thought smugly. The automatic doors to the hotel softly whirred as they opened for him. Truth be told, Bede hadn’t been worried about any of the competition prior to meeting them except for the champion’s personally endorsed trainers, but after seeing Hop practicing Poké Ball tosses and how quick the girl had been to anger… he wondered if he really had any reason to be concerned at all. He shrugged and adjusted his pink coat before going about his way. A man dressed in a familiar white and black suit approached him. His sunglasses gleamed a tinge of yellow in the sun’s rays.

“Hello, Challenger Bede!” the man said cheerfully. “May I escort you to and prepare you for the Opening Ceremony?”

Bede gave him an insulted glare. “The stadium is exactly one building away from the Budew Drop-In,” Bede growled pointedly. “I can walk there myself and I can follow basic instructions to enter the pitch.” He huffed in annoyance and pushed past the man. “I do appreciate the Chairman, but he has a hard time picking worthwhile employees. You lot are about as intelligent as a pack of Skwovet all tryin’ to eat berries from the same tree.”

Gloria had barely managed to cross the threshold into the lobby before Hop was in her face. “Gloria!” he exclaimed as he planted his hands on her shoulders. “How did you manage to sleep in? We only have a few minutes before we need to be at the pitch!”

She blinked the bleariness from her eyes. His excitement confused her foggy, still half-asleep mind. “I’m ready to go now, Hop, I’m not late,” she mumbled, “it’s only a building or two down the way…”

He looked a little harried, she thought. Although he had at least showered that morning, that much she could tell, his hair wasn’t brushed or styled as smoothly as it typically would have been, and he seemed… twitchy. “Alright, alright, but let’s go!” Hop said, tugging at her arm painfully. She winced and scrambled after him.

They arrived within a few minutes and were quickly ushered to get into their custom-made gym challenger uniforms. Well, custom in that they sported their chosen numbers. The suit itself was the same across the board for most. A white shirt with thin black vertical stripes, a number scrawled across the back, with a sword insignia on the front of the shirt. The pants were pure white with the number printed in the bottom left of the front. Gloria and Hop noticed that Bede was back yet again after they finished getting into uniform. If he wasn’t issuing scathing scowls at the opposing challengers, he was ignoring them haughtily, with a raised chin. He looked odd outside of his enormous pink jacket.

“Ugh, so he’s goin’ to be a face we see a lot, isn’t he?” Hop grumbled with a curled lip. “That seems perfect.”

“Don’t let him get to you,” Gloria said, steeling her voice. She didn’t like Bede either, but she was certain she knew what he was up to. Victory of the mind and body and all that. “Someone like that… he’s probably the weakest one here, to be honest. If you’re so strong, why would you need to use all that lip to try to intimidate everyone else?”

“I guess you got a point,” Hop agreed. He nodded and touched his right hand to his chin.

“Alright, everyone! Out to the pitch!” An intercom projected across the lobby. “League Staff will assist in making sure everyone is aligned properly!”

As they were lined up in a dark hallway, Gloria was keenly aware of the painfully bright exit to the tunnel. She could just barely see the short grass and could hear the dull roar of an excited, murmuring crowd. The main source of light in the tunnel was not the dull light bulbs embedded in the ceiling, but rather a wide flatscreen angled from the wall. It showed footage from a Rotom Drone as it whirled around the stadium’s field. Gloria was able to watch, even as League Staff shuffled them around and told them how to act upon entering the field, as Chairman Rose strode out into the middle of the field. She also noticed how attentively Bede stared at the screen. The cocky smirk that typically marred his face was gone, and his eyes were wide and focused, unlike the narrow bitterness they had conveyed the day before.

“Greetings, people of Galar!” Chairman Rose’s voice echoed slightly from where she could hear him just outside the tunnel as well as on the television. “For those that may be tuning in to the Gym Challenge for the first time, I am the Chairman of Galar’s Pokémon League, and today’s event will introduce both the gym leaders our challengers will be expected to face, and the trainers that have been hand-selected as worthy and ready to partake in the Major League this season! And for those that know what this momentous occasion means, you’ve likely been waiting long enough. You will be pleased to know that this marks the official beginning of this season’s Galarian Major Pokémon League!”

He was darker-skinned, with dusky black hair that faded into a silvery tone toward his neck. His suit was a dark tan, and he adjusted his tie as he moved across the stadium. He had such an understanding expression on his face. He seemed like someone that would have been easy to talk to if it were not for the fact he was one of the most famous and important men in all of Galar. His kindly face was everywhere in the country.

“Each of these brave challengers you are about to meet will need to collect all eight of the badges from each of Galar’s eight gyms,” he continued. “The task is not easy, and it is merely a fact of life that not all of them will make it to the finals. But those that do will fight in a bracket for the possibility of snatching the title of champion from the greatest champion Galar has ever known—Champion Leon!”

Smoke billowed out across one end of the stadium. Chairman Rose put his hands together behind his back, patiently waiting on the theatrics. Crackling pops raged throughout the stadium until finally, the smoke began to clear away, and Leon was revealed. He was already standing in his signature pose. The drone recording the scene had stooped in low to get a close look at Leon’s face and it succeeded in capturing his mischievous, gleaming smile as he tilted his hat upright to show his eyes. He winked at the camera and then sauntered over to Chairman Rose. Respectfully, he shook his hand. With that, he addressed the crowd again, turning to face them with his hands on his hips. The way the crowd reacted wildly to his extravagant entrance made Gloria clench her teeth.

“That’s right! Whoever the challenger may be, I look forward to meeting them in Wyndon in just three months!” he declared. “Charizard and I will be waiting!”

Chairman Rose resumed control of the conversation. He held out his arm toward a different tunnel much like the one the challengers were waiting in. “Now, I’d like to invite the gym leaders to introduce themselves!”

A burly man in a large straw hat strutted from the designated tunnel. “The fighting farmer! Here’s Galar’s very own Grass-type expert, Milo!” Chairman Rose bellowed. Milo himself gave a slow wave at the crowd. The drone zoomed in close to his face. He had a kind, nervous smile and welcoming green eyes, all framed by soft locks of pink hair.

“The raging wave! It’s the master of Water-types… Nessa!”

A slimly built woman gracefully exited the tunnel. She kept her chin raised and her eyes closed until she neared where Milo had stood just a few feet away from Chairman Rose himself. She paused next to Milo and gave the Grass-type leader a cheerful grin. Milo seemed less than enthused and rubbed his chin a little. He awkwardly shifted a little closer to Chairman Rose. Gloria raised a brow inquisitively at that interaction. She had no way of knowing, but Galar had a way of training its people to rip apart every action of its gym leaders and other respected trainers. It made the Galarian media delicious and scandalous for viewing, both within its own borders and beyond. Only those scrutinized under that harsh public light could know the damage it could do, of course…

“The ever-burning man of fire! Here comes the Fire-type veteran, Kabu!” Chairman Rose apparently decided to add a little more to Kabu’s entrance, as he continued with, “Kabu has actually reached a title match with Leon twice, and before that, traveled about the world to discover where he belonged. We’re all quite grateful he decided to settle on Galar after hailing all the way from Hoenn!”

A lithe figure jogged free of the tunnel next. He had a rhythm in his steps and each motion seemed very deliberate. His eyes were narrow, and his silvery gray hair rustled in the gentle breeze of the stadium. He made no notice of Nessa as he took a place right next to her. She knew Kabu was the oldest of the gym leaders, bar Opal, and he battled with precision and focus unmatched by any of the other gym leaders. He was completely unconcerned with the crowd, both then in the Opening Ceremony, and in battle. His battles were always jarring to watch thanks to his lack of theatrics. She kind of appreciated that about him, though.

“The Galarian karate prodigy! Nobody’s better with Fighting-types than Bea!” 

A shoeless woman with a spectacularly honed body entered the arena. She broke into a few cartwheels, landing on her feet effortlessly, before taking her place beside Kabu. The stadium cheered exuberantly for her performance. Her sandy hair was cut quite short and her eyes burned with intensity Gloria had never seen before in another person’s expression, her lips unwavering.

“Bea actually recently displaced the Ghost-type gym leader of Stow-on-Side,” Chairman Rose added. “Allister relinquished his title as gym leader, and after some investigation, I am proud to add Bea to our talented roster of gym leaders.” Bea gave a grateful and respectful bow at his words, her hands planted firmly to her sides. Gloria had to admire her. She was such a strong woman, both in battle and the way she handled herself. It was no wonder she gravitated to Fighting-types.

“The master of a fantastic theater! It’s the charming Fairy-type user, Opal!”

For a few moments, nobody entered the arena at all. Leon and Chairman Rose shared a quizzical look between the two of them, and then Leon pointed at a figure just beginning to shake away the shadow of the tunnel. Chairman Rose laughed hardily. “She might be a bit slow on her feet, but she’s definitely a challenge in her own right!”

Opal was completely unfazed by the joking. The Fairy-type trainer was an elderly woman with a laughably large, pointed nose, and a purple, pale blue, and pink color palette. Her dress clung to a thin frame and a wide-brimmed, azure hat obscured her eyes. She continued to slowly make her way to where the rest of the gym leaders were standing steadfast. She used a pink and sky-blue umbrella as a de-facto cane. Nessa and Kabu were the only ones looking at her. As Opal approached, she brought the tip of the umbrella down on Bea’s bare left foot. Bea managed to keep it together and calmly pull her foot away once Opal raised it again, leaving Opal a little more space. Again, Opal seemed blissfully unaware and merely readjusted herself. She finally fell still. Bea’s eyebrows twitched. That couldn’t have felt good, Gloria thought to herself, a smirk pulling at the corners of her lips. Giggles had broken out among the gym challengers waiting in the tunnel.

“The hard-rock crusher! Please welcome the Rock-type master, Gordie!” Chairman Rose said once Opal settled in. He sounded like he was trying hard to hold back a fit of his own laughter. “Gordie is also new this season as the new gym leader of Circhester following Melony, the Ice-type leader.” Chairman Rose winked at the drone that focused on his face. “We’ve got to keep the challengers on their toes, after all.”

That was an understatement of the century if Victor’s story yesterday was any indication. She stood on her tiptoes to curiously look over the other challengers to see if she could spot him. Most of the challengers were likely at least sixteen or older, so she wasn’t surprised when she failed to see where he was standing. He was quite short, far shorter than she or Hop. She shrugged and flattened her feet against the floor again.

A man entered the stadium with both arms raised in a high five-like gesture. His black hair ended with yellow streaks, and he wore curved sunglasses that glittered in the stadium’s harsh, white light. The crowd raucously screamed louder than ever upon his entrance. He loped carelessly to stand next to Opal, where he flashed a brilliant smile at a Rotom Drone camera that zipped by.

“I heard he was the son of that Ice-type leader, Melony,” whispered a black-haired male challenger to Gloria’s left. He was talking eagerly with a redheaded boy. “They got into a huge fight in the middle of Circhester! Nearly split the whole town in half! Rose himself almost had to come set things straight, he did!”

Gloria frowned. Clearly, that was still the talk of the town in Circhester. She didn’t envy anyone native to that city, that was for sure…

“Unfortunately,” Chairman Rose began again, “our esteemed Dark-type leader Piers could not make it to the ceremony today. But I’m sure he wished he could have, and I hope everything is alright in Spikemuth. Piers is one of the youngest of our gym leaders now that Allister has retired, and quite the vocalist, I might add.”

The soft, laid-back music that had been gently permeating the stadium suddenly died, and was replaced with harsh, booming music. The lights flashed between being off and on, and Rose’s face was replaced on all the monitors in the stadium with a video of a black- and white-haired man clutching a microphone passionately. He pranced across a stage illuminated in neon pink with purpose and an unyielding smile owned his face. The crowd outside cheered and swooned. Almost as soon as it had begun, though, it was over, and Chairman Rose resumed his place on the monitors. She had seen Piers perform before. The love and passion he had for music was unmistakable, and his style? Amazing. She really admired him. As if that wasn’t cool enough, during battles, Piers refused to Dynamax. Most found that insulting, in a way, to Galar’s League, but Gloria looked up to Piers for it. He knew how to put others on the ropes even without relying on Dynamax.

“And finally, last but not least, Raihan, the top gym leader and tamer of dragons!” Chairman Rose shouted.

“Ah, my rival at last!” Leon added gleefully. Laughter broke out amongst the crowd of the stadium. The Rotom Drone capturing the footage for the TV focused on his face for a second. “What?” he asked tauntingly. “He is!” More laughter. Gloria rolled her eyes. He just couldn’t help himself, could he?

Out from the gym leader’s tunnel, a dark-skinned man, clad in red and blue, charged and skid into the stadium. He adopted a pose with his fingers curled to resemble claws, his lips curled in a snarl, and his back hunched in a lunge. A Rotom Phone danced around his head. It appeared to be taking pictures. Raihan straightened himself out after a few seconds and trotted happily to join the other leaders. He gave the crowd waves and kisses and cast a wink at the cameras for all to see. Gloria heard a few girls in the tunnel giggle amongst the screams of the crowd outside, and she gave a resigned chuckle of her own. Raihan was so… showy… He and Leon were two peas in a pod. At least Raihan had some humility, though, or at least it seemed like he did based on interviews she’d watched between him and reporters.

“With that,” Chairman Rose called above the noise, “these are Galar’s Major League Gym Leaders! I, and I am sure the rest of Galar, are proud to call them our very own!”

Opal abruptly cut through the pompousness by slamming her umbrella down to the ground and, in a raspy tone, demanding, “Alright, alright, let’s get a move on, would we? I don’t think I’ve got enough time left in my life for this.”

Howls and cackles filled the stadium and the tunnel the gym challengers were waiting in. Gloria swore she saw Opal deviously smile for the camera. She shook her head. Crafty old Noibat.

“Of course, Ms. Opal!” Chairman Rose said, playing along. “Please welcome the gym challengers that will be facing their trials!”

With that, League Staff began to rush them out of the tunnel. They did their best to follow one another in single file, but a few challengers grew intimidated by the crowd and their knees began to lock up. Encouragement from some others got them moving again, but they ended up entering the stadium in more of a fanning formation than a line. The Rotom Drone slowly drifted between each challenger, focusing exactly on them, and the monitor would then reveal their name and an announcer would give a short description of each trainer.

Gloria herself was one of those trainers intimidated by the crowd. She had frozen upon entering, and as such, was bringing up the rear of the line. League Staff then began to urge them to parade in a circle circumventing the arena’s interior. She glanced up ahead and saw that Hop was lavishing the spotlight. He had a bounce in his step and waved at the crowd, earning coos of approval. Naturally, the announcer made sure everyone knew him and the fact he was Champion Leon’s little brother.

Bede cared not for the crowd, apparently, since he all but ignored the drone that focused on him for a few moments and made no efforts to acknowledge the crowd. His behavior earned him whispers of excitement from the crowd. Curious mumbles made the stadium buzz and roar with discussion from the sheer numbers. The announcers only divulged that he had been endorsed by Chairman Rose himself. She wondered if that was all he had to show for himself.

Marnie acknowledged the crowd with a peace symbol, and then an air guitar. The announcer was quick to explain that Marnie was the younger brother of the absent Piers. The crowd’s cheers briefly waned and were interjected with the raucous, ear-raking sounds of poorly played trumpets and loud boomboxes. Gloria noticed more ‘Team Yell,’ punk-rock people were making as much noise as possible from one of the lower rows of the stadium’s benches. Marnie appeared to spot them as well and gave a quiet sigh that she had tried to hide from the camera but had failed. She cast a glance at Gloria and Gloria nervously chuckled back at her.

She and Marnie had battled the night before, just after Hop had gone to his room to sleep. Marnie had beaten her in an embarrassingly quick match. Marnie had then explained how she trained beneath Piers, her brother, who gave her Morpeko. Gloria had been ecstatic upon learning that. She had also pried for more information about Spikemuth. She couldn’t help it; as famous as Piers was, she had seen so little of Spikemuth on the TV… It was such a secretive city. Marnie hadn’t revealed much to her, though. She seemed anxious about the idea of talking about Spikemuth and had quickly changed course, claiming she was tired and going for bed.

When the camera found Avery, the crowd had a mixed reaction to him. While he had started with a feverish wave at the camera, at the lukewarm response, he blushed and haltingly lowered his hand. Gloria felt a surge of annoyance. Sure, his appearance was odd… but that was no reason to react that way. She felt bad for him, and it also made her exceedingly nervous. What if the crowd spotted something in her appearance they didn’t like? She could reasonably assume the crowd had been confused by Avery’s unorthodox clothing (and were probably wondering whether he was male or female as she had when she had met him), but still…

Klara seemed more intrigued by the Rotom Drone itself than the crowd at all. She bounced eagerly and waved at it. What an odd girl…  

Lastly came the moment Gloria had been dreading: the camera focusing on her. Once it did, she couldn’t help but give a shy wave and awkward smile at the camera. The announcer commented on her modesty in an amused tone and her face flushed red. She was quite glad when they were finally urged to leave the arena again, out the same tunnel they had entered through.

Hop was feeling as pumped as ever upon leaving Motostoke Stadium. The positivity and spirit of the ceremony had his veins flowing with determination. Down the cobbled roadway, he spotted Gloria heading for the Budew Drop-In. He excitedly bounced over and circled in front of her, walking backwards for a few steps until she paused. 

“Oh, hey, Hop!” she said warmly. “That was… somethin’ else, I am not sure what I was expectin’, but that was wild.”

“I know! But I’m so excited! This is really happenin’! We’re in the gym challenge! We’re rivals!” He could hardly contain himself. “Now, you and me! We have got to battle again! Let’s go, to the outskirts of Motostoke!”

A smile spread across Gloria’s face and her brown eyes glinted. “You’re on, Hop!”

Chapter Text

“You might have beat us before, but we’re far stronger now!” Hop exclaimed. “I’ve nearly got a full team now! What about you?”

“Are you just all talk?” Gloria teased. “But yes, for your info, I’ve got five, too.”

“Ha, eager to start? Let’s start, then! Go, Wooloo!” Hop shouted. He tossed a Poké Ball at the cobblestone beneath them and out popped his favorite pal, Wooloo. She looked at him and shook her wool out happily. They were standing on the road that led out of Motostoke, toward the next town over, Turffield. Although he had challenged Gloria just after the Opening Ceremony, they had taken a brief detour prior to the battle to the Wild Area for a little more catching. Once they were both satisfied with their teams, they had agreed to meet back up here. Hop was ready to show her just who was going to be boss in their rivalry!

“Let’s get him, Nickit!” Gloria cried, and from a red beam of light came a red vulpine with a dark mask over its eyes, and a tail that swept the floor every which way it moved.

Hop was prepared this time. Dark-type, weak to Fighting-type… Double Kick’s only real choice here. “Wooloo, Double Kick!”

“Nickit, Quick Attack!”

Nickit crouched, narrowed its eyes, and then seemingly disappeared altogether! It reappeared again as its tail slammed into Wooloo’s face. The force of the impact tossed her to the other side of the road. Wasting no time, Wooloo bounced back to her feet, and rushed at Nickit. Wooloo whirled on her front hooves and then threw out her back feet in a devastating kick. Both hooves landed squarely on Nickit’s muzzle. Nickit yelped and collapsed on its side. Quivering, it tried desperately to scramble back to her feet, but ultimately remained on the ground.

“Yeah! There you go, Wooloo!” Hop said encouragingly. His words beamed with pride and Wooloo happily bahh’d in response. They did it! He’d fainted one of Gloria’s pokémon! There was an overwhelming surge of happiness as he realized that… as if he hadn’t thought it would have even been possible. But that was silly. Of course it was! He was the champion’s brother, of course he’d be a good trainer!

“Lucky!” Gloria exclaimed. “I just forgot that Wooloo can learn Fightin’-type moves!” she explained. She recalled Nickit. “You did a good job, Nickit. Go, Vulpix!”

The Vulpix plaintively mewled upon its release and yawned at Wooloo. It flicked its tails and then adopted a tense pose with its front legs bent against the ground and its rear high in the air.

“Wooloo, Double Kick again!” Hop shouted. He knew they didn’t have any super-effective moves against a Vulpix. He just hoped the dual hit would hurt significantly more than a measly Tackle.

“Vulpix, Ember!”

Wooloo pulled the same move again. Hooves collided with Vulpix’s shoulders, but it remained on its feet, and used Wooloo’s closeness to its distinct advantage. A fireball landed on Wooloo’s fleece and her pelt was quickly engulfed with flame. She rolled around on the ground to starve the blaze and made no attempts to face Vulpix a second time. She quivered and glanced up at Hop pleadingly.

“We’re not through yet, don’t you worry, Wooloo,” Hop reassured her, hoping to ease the anxiety in her expression. He wanted to be sure she felt as if she had done a good job despite her defeat… He didn’t want her worrying that she wasn’t good enough. He held up her Poké Ball and she disappeared in a flash of red. Deftly switching it out for another, he shouted, “Go, Growlithe! We’ve still got this!”

Growlithe barked as he hit the ground. Hop had barely finished issuing the order for a Bite when he rushed at Vulpix and chomped at her ear, clamping fangs around a mouthful of Vulpix’s fluffy red tails. Gloria tried to have Vulpix use Ember again, but Growlithe shook off the small ball of fire as if it were nothing. In fact, the attack seemed to only invigorate it.

“Ha! Growlithe has the ability to absorb Fire-type moves!” Hop said. He winked at Gloria. “Goodbye, Vulpix!”

Growlithe bit Vulpix again and she retreated to Gloria. Curled up at Gloria’s feet, she looked at Gloria with wide, watery eyes. “You did a good job, Vulpix,” she Gloria exasperatedly told her with a snicker, “time to rest for a while. But Hop, don’t go gettin’ so cocky, you hear?!” She lobbed a Poké Ball back at the battlefield and out came Sobble.

It wasn’t long before Growlithe was felled by the Water-type advantage. Hop had thought to switch out at first, but he only had Grookey, Rookidee, and Dottler to choose from. He wasn’t sure if Grookey could have switched into an attack, even if it was a Water-type attack, and still manage to pull out on top. He groaned as he recalled Growlithe and wished he had just went for it. Shrugging it off, he shouted, “Go, Grookey!”

Grookey was quick to dispatch Sobble with a series of Branch Pokes and Gloria responded soundly with Rookidee, viciously ending Grookey’s advantage with a multitude of Gusts. Hop decided to risk it and sent out his new Dottler. It was weak to the Flying-type, of course, but its signature attack—Confusion—could confuse targets and ruin their ability to defend themselves. Dottler waved tiny hands at Gloria’s Rookidee and issued a Confusion just as Hop ordered. As they exchanged orders and their pokémon traded blows, Hop felt so invigorated. This was what battles were supposed to be. A constant dance of control between opponent, fueled by the respect their pokémon had for them, and they had for their pokémon. He felt a wave of emotion swell inside of him. He still couldn’t believe he was actually a trainer, now!

Rookidee shook its head in irritation, and dove at Dottler, pecking at her exterior. Dottler scurried away and shook off the pain. Rookidee, however, landed, stumbling on its feet and flaring its wings to keep balance.

“It’s confused! Yes!” Hop exclaimed. “Dottler, Confusion again!”

“Rookidee, Peck! You can get through it!” Gloria cried desperately.

Rookidee lifted into the air but failed to finish the attack due to its wings falling out of sync. It hit the ground in a heap of feathers. Gloria reassured it and then recalled it. She was so curt with them… At least she was giving them the chance to rest, of course. It was quite clear Rookidee was in no state to keep battling.

“Alright, Yamper, it’s up to you!” Gloria called. Hurling a Poké Ball at her feet, a cute little canine jumped free, waving its paws cutely at Hop as it fell to the ground. “Nuzzle!” Gloria called.

Hop didn’t expect much trouble from a Yamper as long as Dottler took it out first. “Dottler, Confusion!”

Yamper hit first. It rushed at Dottler with frightening speed and its electrified cheeks sent volts coursing through Dottler’s body. She quivered with electricity, and then fell still, shutting her eyes tightly. The Confusion Hop had ordered never came. He snapped his fingers in frustration. He had really hoped she’d have been able to handle the Yamper…

“Okay, good job, Dottler,” Hop sighed. He recalled Dottler and gave the ball a quick pat. The loss wasn’t her fault, as bitter as he felt knowing what the outcome of the battle would now be. His last pokémon was his own Rookidee, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out he was going to lose due to the type disadvantage. He threw out the Rookidee anyway, and it chirped happily, perching on his shoulder. “We’re in battle, Rookidee,” Hop laughed nervously.

Gloria rolled her eyes as Rookidee hopped off his shoulder and took flight. “Peck!” Hop cried.

“Nuzzle it, too, Yamper!”

Rookidee plunged at the Yamper and jabbed it harshly, but Yamper whirled around and slammed its electrically charged fur against Rookide’s face. He plummeted to the ground. His entire body was tense and spasming.

“Nuzzle it again!” Gloria shouted.

“Rookidee! You can do it, come on, fight it! Peck it again!”

Rookidee remained stunned against the cobbled ground, and Yamper rushed at it yet again, throwing its charged body against it once more. Hop decided to just recall Rookidee and accept defeat. It stung, he had to admit, to have been bested by her even when he nearly had a full team and had come so close to fainting all her pokémon, but after a deep breath, he realized he had to accept he was still new to this and finding his footing. He covered the frustration with a forced, cocky grin and Gloria wore a similarly sly smirk as she recalled her Yamper with words of encouragement.

“That was definitely much more interesting than the Tackle and Pound fest our first two matches were,” she said. “We’ve got to do that again sometime.”

“Ah, don’t you worry about that!” Hop teased, holding out a card between his index and middle finger. He had pulled it from a pocket within his jacket in a swift, fluid motion. Much like his Poké Ball throw, he had practiced this as well, offering another person his League Card. He had already designed quite a few and had the lobby of Motostoke Stadium print him twenty copies or so. “My League Card. You might want to keep it, could be worth somethin’ after I become Champion of Galar.”

“You cheeky little—give me that!” she shrilly said in disbelief and then snatched the card from his fingers. She was smiling incredulously after him. “Now I’m goin’ to keep this, but mostly because I want to compare it to yours later in the league and laugh at how silly it looks in comparison.”

“Pfft, as if,” Hop crossed his arms. “You even got a League Card printed yet?”

Gloria shook her head. “No, I didn’t even think about it, to be honest. Not any extras to hand out, anyway,” she said.

“Well anyway,” Hop said, switching gears, “I’m goin’ to go heal up at the Pokémon Center, then you and I better head for Turffield. We’ve got a Grass Badge to earn!”

Gloria needed a Pokémon Center, but she waited for Hop to go on up ahead. She wanted a few minutes to compose herself. That battle had been intense! Hop was right. Far more interesting than their first two matches, she had gotten quite worried toward the end. It was only when Hop sent out his last pokémon, a Rookidee, that she felt confident she would win. Once her heart steadied, she took a short detour to Motostoke’s Pokémon Center, and then headed for the exit in the direction of Turffield.

Most of the trip was uneventful. She caught a few new pokémon, including a Rolycoly, Stunfisk, Shellos, and Scraggy. She wasn’t sure why so many complained capturing was difficult. Sure, she had needed to pause to heal her pokémon frequently, and it sometimes took a few tries with different Poké Balls, but with some determination, she had caught all four of them in the course of just a couple of hours. Using the Box Link on her Rotom Phone, she had organized her team as she went, too, settling on a lineup of Nickit, Yamper, Vulpix, Sobble, Shellos, and Stunfisk. Partway into the mine that separated the routes between Motostoke and Turffield, she had the misfortune of running into Bede.

The cavern around them was glittering with blue and violet gems buried in the surfaces and a pond nearby gave the occasional splash as Magikarp breached the surface occasionally. The rocky floor below was a little slippery from their splashing, but Bede seemed unbothered. He was once again leaning against something, this time a spire reaching from the floor of the cavern. His eyes locked on hers as she approached, and that stupid smirk crossed his face again.

“Why, hello, Gloria,” he said. “Fancy seein’ you here.”

“What do you want, Bede? Thought it was criminal of us to waste your time?” Gloria asked spitefully. “Actually… never mind, I don’t really care. I’m just goin’ to keep goin’ this way.” She went to walk past him, and he was up instantly. Sidestepping ahead of her, he leaned over her a little bit and squared his shoulders. She wondered just how old he was. He was quite a bit taller than she was, and she was seventeen…

“How rude, I give my time to talk to you and you’re just goin’ to ignore me,” he said, his voice feigning hurt, while those indigo eyes gleamed in a way that made her feel uneasy. “While it pains me to force my pokémon against such low-level opponents, I’m afraid you aren’t moving on without battlin’ me. Someone needs to teach you that just bein’ friends with the champion’s little brother doesn’t get you anythin’ in this challenge.”

Gloria grew more confused the more he spoke. “What on Earth are you talkin’ about, Bede? Anyone with an endorsement’s got the same right as anyone else with an endorsement to be here.” She paused and steeled her jaw. “No matter who endorsed who.”

“Someone really must put you in your place,” he said, completely unaffected by her words. He moved uncomfortably close and she was forced to take a step back. How is someone dressed like him so intimidating? she thought, irritated with herself for being so unsettled by his presence. He might have had a non-threatening color palette, but something gave her the impression Bede’s attitude was hardly just for show. Was he really just… like this? “Now send out a pokémon. I’m done talkin’. I’ve already sent three or four weaklings like you packin’ for home. I’m plannin’ to make you next,” Bede added darkly.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” Gloria growled as she stumbled away from him, “but you’re one hell of a bully and I’ll enjoy crunchin’ you into the rocks we’re standin’ on. You hear me?” Sent three or four weaklings packing…? What is he talking about? She gasped. Victory of mind and body. He’s trying to run challengers off the gym challenge altogether!

Bede snorted and rolled his eyes. “Go, Solosis!”

“Go, Nickit!” Gloria shouted, determined to put him in his place now. “Snarl!”

“Solosis, Endeavor!” Bede ordered robotically.

Nickit bent her legs and let out a fearsome snarl. Solosis clenched its eyes shut in pain but managed to survive the attack, responding with a well-timed Endeavor. It slammed its body into Nickit with a surprising amount of force for something that looked so squishy and harmless, the attack a wild, reckless charge. Bowled to her side, Nickit gave a surprised yowl.

“Confusion, now!” Bede snapped at his Solosis.

“You can do it, Nickit! Get up, Snarl again!” Gloria said desperately. It took her a moment, but she suddenly realized an error with something Bede had said. Did he just order a Psychic-type move on a Dark-type? “Bede, what—"

Nickit staggered to her feet and cut Gloria off with a furious snarl that brought Solosis slamming to the ground. It didn’t levitate again and Nickit stood over the fainted Solosis with a victorious, smug look on her muzzle.

“Bede, Psychic-type moves don’t even affect Dark-types! Didn’t the ceremony say you specialize in Psychic-types?” Gloria asked incredulously. She thought she saw the corner of Bede’s lips twitch, but he ignored her question altogether. She shook her head. She had caught him in an obvious mistake and of course he wasn’t going to recognize it. Everyone was so damn haughty in this stupid challenge! She hoped he messed up like that again. She’d wipe the floor with that stupid grin of his. His and everyone else’s, for that matter. Oh, how she lavished the power that came from a victorious battle. She could drink in the intoxicating feeling forever…

“Return, Solosis,” Bede said calmly. He slicked back his hair and wordlessly released a Gothita. “Pound!”

Nickit looked furious. Gloria chuckled darkly at the furious tension in the little pokémon’s muscles. “Snarl,” Gloria said. She sounded bored even though she was having the time of her life beating him. She just knew that would irritate him to no end. Gothita pranced over to her Nickit and slapped its muzzle harshly. Nickit responded in kind with yet another horrid yowl, snapping its jaws inches away from Gothita’s face. Gothita cowered to cover its ears, and at Gloria’s next order, Nickit used the opportunity to dish out another shriek.

Gothita hobbled back over to Bede and sank to its knees in front of him. He silently recalled her, and his cool façade began to falter. He looked frustrated now. “Go, Ponyta! Fairy Wind!”

“Oh, that’s not good,” Gloria muttered, only mildly worried. “Nickit, come back!” she shouted, attempting to recall Nickit. Stubbornly, the Nickit dodged the ray of red light, and shot Gloria a growl and disapproving look. “Hey! Don’t look at me like that! Get back in the ball!” she ordered frustratedly.

Nickit disregarded her altogether and took the Fairy Wind head-on. It remained standing but had let out a piercing cry of pain. Gloria tried to recall her again and once more, Nickit dodged, and fiercely snarled. “You stupid Nickit, you’ll just get hurt!” Gloria groaned. Ponyta reared up onto its back legs and kicked its front feet about, then turned tail to flee. Bede recalled it before it got too far.

Nickit finally collapsed, and Gloria was able to recall her. Coolly regaining her composure from briefly losing control of her pokémon, she glared at Bede with a cocky smirk. “Still want more?”

He surveyed her with pursed lips. “You know, the public doesn’t like a trainer that’s not all that kind to their pokémon.”

“I’m her trainer, and she was making a mistake in not listenin’ to me,” Gloria defended herself coldly. “I’m her coach. She’s got to learn somehow. And—I don’t need to explain myself to you! You still want to battle or not?” she spat.

“I’m not close to done, unless you are,” Bede snorted. He sent out a Hatenna. The tiny thing flicked the tip of its hat back and forth in a way that seemed annoyed.

Gloria tossed out her Yamper. “Bite!” she cried, pointing at the Hatenna.

“Disarmin’ Voice!” Bede said quietly.

Yamper reached the Hatenna before it was able to sing. He chomped down on the pokémon’s hat and shook its head vigorously back and forth. Hatenna screeched in rage, and Yamper yelped, throwing her to the ground and jumping away. Hatenna twitched and struggled to her tiny feet.

“Again!” Bede demanded.

“You’ve got this, Yamper!” Gloria said. “Bite again!”

With that, Yamper quickly dispatched the Hatenna. Bede still had two more following that—a Ralts and a Mawile—but the Ralts was no issue for Yamper’s paralyzing Nuzzle followed up with Bite, and Mawile was swiftly dealt with by Vulpix’s scathing Incinerate.

“So,” Gloria said as she recalled Vulpix and ended the battle, “are you done now? Can I go? Also, tip: don’t try to use Psychic moves on Dark-type pokémon, genius.”

Bede gritted his teeth as he addressed her. “It doesn’t matter. If I don’t crush you now, it will be later. I just wasn’t tryin’ that hard. I do not need you or anyone else’s advice,” he bristled through gritted teeth, “I won’t underestimate you again.”

“Still doesn’t answer my question, but whatever, I’m leavin’,” Gloria huffed, pushing past him roughly. He gave a start of surprise but swiftly regained his composure. He returned to leaning against the cavern wall, eyes closed, and arms crossed tightly. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Whatever his problem was, she had no interest in helping. She had no sympathy for him and his bratty behavior.

She was soon grateful when she found the exit of the mine, but a little less so when she saw Hop rushing at her. Her chest tightened uneasily. Having just gotten out of battle, and with the endlessly infuriating Bede no less, she really hoped Hop wasn’t coming to try to battle her again. “Hey, Hop,” she said as he drew close enough to hear her. Looking just past him, she could see Turffield; it was a lush and green place, with just a few dirt pathways running between sparsely packed buildings. The stadium was the most obvious building there, in fact, and fields of crops rolled out across the land behind it. Mountains ringed the left side of the town.

“Hi!” he answered as he stopped. “This is the town where Milo’s takin’ on challengers! But it doesn’t seem he’s in the gym right now…”

“We did come racin’ over straight from the ceremony,” Gloria said. “He’s probably not even back yet, or just resting some after all that splendor.” Gloria yawned and rubbed her eyes. “‘Sides. It’s gettin’ pretty late into the day, now, we did a lot today.”

“Fair,” Hop nodded. “Well, anyway, I’m goin’ to get that Grass Badge tomorrow and then you and I are goin’ to scuffle again, you hear?!”

“Sure, Hop,” Gloria sighed. She started like she was going to walk past him but stopped when he asked her a question.

“Everythin’ alright?” he asked. He tilted his head. “You seem upset.”

“Just, ran into that Bede again in the mine,” she answered. Her heart thrummed. He so rarely seemed to notice when she was bothered… “He wasn’t difficult to beat, but he just bothers me, you know? He’s so pushy and talks so much smack no matter how little truth there is to it.”

“You’ve got that right,” Hop agreed. He put a hand on her shoulder then and laughed. “But you beat him? Good. I want to fight him a few times to wipe that stupid smirk off his face myself. Can’t wait to get my hands on him.” Hop let go of her and slammed his hands together, then rubbed them. “I’ll teach him a lesson he’ll never forget!”