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Nessa’s halfway through her glass of wine when the room goes silent.

The reason for the silence holds his head up high, lip curled as though he’s physically restraining himself from calling everyone tossers.

Talk about a first impression.

Piers Camburn, Spikemuth’s gym leader. Piers Camburn, the one trainer in the league who refuses to Dynamax. Piers Camburn, the grungy punk rocker who is the complete opposite of Nessa and everything Hulbury represents.

It’s a recurring plotline, this beef they have going. Nessa is proud, almost Mean Girl-ishly so. Piers is stubborn, digging in his skull-studded heels when anyone dares ask him to follow the same rules as everyone else.

The event photographers get their shots. Nessa is expecting that, even counting on it.

There are three dynamics the paparazzi can’t get enough of: passionate love, passionate rivalry… and passionate hate.

Nessa’s aiming for love with Sonia. She’s trying for rivalry with Milo. What’s left of her heart — the part that hates — belongs to Piers.

Theoretically, anyway.

She watches from across the room, looking for her sign.

Piers makes eye contact with her. He licks his lips, their signal.

She turns to Kabu and Milo and says, “I just remembered. I left my purse downstairs — could you get it for me? I’d go myself, but I’m wearing heels.”

Kabu raises an eyebrow, then casts a meaningful look toward Piers. He must know she’s just trying to get them out of the way.

What he says, though, is “what does your purse look like?”

In minutes he and Milo are out of the room. Nessa takes another sip of her wine.

Then she says, in a voice soft enough to be plausibly private but loud enough to definitely be heard, “Look who the Purrloin dragged in.”

Right on cue, Piers turns to glare at her. “Something to share with the class, Ms. Hannan?”

“Oh, nothing,” she says, raising her glass to her lips. The merlot is bitter, delicious. “Just surprised you decided to come, considering you’ve blown off the last six events.”

The other guests retreat near the walls, clearing a battleground. Nessa knows this movement well: it’s how the Chewtle act when Golisopod and Grapploct prepare to fight.

Piers stares at her like he’s sizing her up. “Some of us need to care for our gyms, Ness’. We ain’t all spoiled models like you.”

Some of us know how to accept help, Piers.”

Strike. Dodge. Strike again. Their argument is a dance. In her mind, Nessa sets it to music.

It’s not a party without a little drama.

“How’s Hulbury treating you lately?” Piers asks. “Having fun down there at the bottom of the league?”

“It’s wonderful. How’s your stadium? Oh, right. You don’t have one, because you’re so special you can fight without Dynamaxing.”

They’ve got rules about this: battle skill, personal aesthetic, their friends, whatever — almost anything is fair game. The only parts that aren’t are their Pokémon and their sisters.

Piers has a sharp tongue, but so does Nessa. She knows neither of them take it personally.

“Bold words for someone who’s never struggled a day in her life.”

“I’ve fought and won what I have! You were given everything!”

They let the tension hang for a moment.

“Don’t talk to me about competition until you prove you’re worth it.” Then Piers gives the signal that he’s ready to end this: “Even Milo doesn’t think you’re good enough to be his rival.”

(That’s another reason why she had to get Milo out of the way before they started.)

Nessa gasps loudly, putting on her most offended expression. She stomps up to Piers and gets in his space, so close their noses almost touch.

“You. Don’t. Know. Anything. About us.”

Piers snorts.

Nessa takes her wine glass and pours it over his head.

*

Melony insists on taking Nessa home after that. Probably some motherly instincts or whatnot. Nessa allows the other to walk her out of the ballroom, noting with some satisfaction that the great Raihan is leading Piers out the other door.

Later that night, after she gets Melony to go back to Circhester, Nessa heads to Spikemuth.

Piers lets her in through the side gate. Nobody is around to see them. Even if they were, people in Spikemuth know not to mess in their gym leader’s business.

Which is good. Because for all the wine she’d sipped at the party, Nessa’s looking forward to hitting the hard stuff.

Piers doesn’t disappoint.

“Well,” he says, slamming down his whiskey glass, “if that doesn’t get us trending on Chattr, I don’t know what will.”

Nessa downs hers. “Cheers to that.”

Because that’s what it’s all about, in the end. Fights mean drama, drama means attention, attention means tickets to their next exhibition match will sell out in minutes.

Good for Nessa. Good for Piers. Good for Hulbury and Spikemuth.

And all it takes is pretending they can’t stand each other.

Nessa pours another glass.

She sips this one, savoring the burn. “My sponsors are getting on my case again.”

“Wankers.” That’s Piers, always taking her side without even asking if she might be in the wrong. “What is it now?”

“Social media presence. I got tagged in an unflattering photo and they’re mad.”

“Tossers. What other people post is not your problem.”

“Exactly! I love being a gym leader, don’t get me wrong, but — Arceus. I wish they’d leave me the fuck alone sometimes.”

Piers nods sympathetically. Nessa remembers, vaguely, that he doesn’t deal with sponsors, because Spikemuth gym is sponsored by Spikemuth’s own chamber of commerce. He doesn’t get the money that Nessa does, but he doesn’t have to deal with the headaches either.

Now that she’s vented a bit, she tries to think of something a bit more fun to talk about. “How’s Marnie doing?

This gets a genuine smile from him. “She’s great. I’m teaching her type advantages. She’s got a real knack for it, you know? In a couple of years she’ll be strong enough to beat Leon. Heh… What about your sister? Dart, right? She doing okay?”

“Dart’s alright. She hates your guts. Sorry about that, I can’t tell her the truth or she’ll be blabbing to everybody about it.”

“No problem. I get it.” Idly, he takes a lock of hair and starts twirling it. It’s a motion Nessa’s seen Sonia do a thousand times, but of course it looks different on Piers. Not least because that part of his usually-white hair has been stained pink from the wine she threw on him.

“Did you… were you going to take a shower? Sorry about that, I didn’t think it’d stain your hair.”

“It’s no problem,” he repeats. “It was going to stain anyway, with how long it took just to get here. It’ll go back to normal in a few weeks. Besides, havin’ it be visible like that, it’ll help sell the story, yeah?”

She nods. “Yeah… Well. I look forward to seeing Marnie challenge my gym. I promise I’ll be nice to her.”

“I promise to watch as she kicks yer arse. I’ll get the director’s cut, even.”

The director’s cut. For some reason, this strikes her as hilarious. She laughs loudly — and in a moment, Piers is laughing too.

They spend the next hour laughing together, enjoying the whiskey as the neon signs of Spikemuth flicker outside the window.

*

In the early hours of the morning, Nessa leaves the city. She calls a taxi from route nine, giving the driver a generous tip and requesting his silence.

By sunrise, she’s home.