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The last thing Raihan’s mom said to him, before she fell asleep for good, was that he had to be strong.

She didn’t… die, or anything, not right away. She just fell asleep, boneless like he did after a whole day playing tag with the neighborhood kids, like she was very, very tired and needed her rest. At first, he hadn’t cared. She was just asleep! That meant she’d wake up, eventually. Maybe not in one day, or one week, but… eventually. Sleep wasn’t forever. Mrs. Fairweather told him he had to move into her house, after his mom fell asleep, and it made sense to him. After all, his mom wasn’t in their house anymore, she’d fallen asleep in the big room at the hospital, and Raihan didn’t like the house, without her there. It was lonely and scary. Mr. Fairweather’s house was much nicer, by comparison, and she liked to finger his hair and praise him for being good. And for a while, it was okay. Mr. Fairweather took him to visit his mom, every other day, and he painted her pictures or brought her flowers, to put in her room, so that when she woke up, she’d see them and feel better.

But the days kept piling on, one on top of the other, smushed together into weeks and then squished further into months, and one day Raihan found himself sitting at the table, birthday cake with five candles neatly arranged on top, and a very ugly feeling clawed its way up his throat, filling up his eyes with tears and his mouth with a sour, unbearable taste. It’d been his birthday, last time his mom had been home: she’d made him pie – she hated cake – and they sang a song and she tickled him until he cried for mercy. The next morning she’d tripped on the carpet in her room, and after she went to the doctor to look at the bump on her head, she’d never come home.

It was a lovely cake that Mrs. Fairweather had bought, it had the crisp, straight lines in the frosting that you just couldn’t do, when you baked it at home. It had his name and his candles and it was lovely. He still cried, anyway, bawling and sobbing, because he wanted pie and his mom and to go home.

“It’s okay,” Mrs. Fairweather said, pulling him into her arms, nails scratching soothingly at the nape of his neck, even though it really wasn’t. “Han, it’ll be okay.”

Raihan didn’t believe her, but she was nice and he felt bad telling her so.

His mom didn’t wake up for his sixth, seventh or eighth birthday, either.

Still, he went to the hospital, even though the visits spaced out, over the years, from every other day, to every two days, to every three, to once a week. He still bought her things he made – drawings and paintings and little stick crafts – and he still sat at the edge of her bed and held her hand while he told her all about school and Mrs. Fairweather and the other kids who’d come to live with her, because like him, their parents couldn’t look after them. Most of them, he’d whisper so low his voice barely made a sound, were dead, not just asleep. Raihan held her hand and measured the size of his own against hers, the steady growth and the weird, unreasonable fear that if his hands got bigger than hers, something terrible would happen.

It wasn’t bad, really: Mrs. Fairweather was kind and gentle and soft-spoken. She gave praise often and never really got angry, even when someone made a mess or disobeyed. Raihan liked her, and not just because she had a habit to use him as example, for the other kids. And yeah, some of them were angry about it and made messes, called him names and broke things. But Mrs. Fairweather took it all in stride, always with a hug and a soft smile, and if it worked for her, Raihan started doing the same, to the smaller ones, too. He didn’t have to, but they liked it and they followed him around, and he liked feeling in charge. He liked helping with homework and coming up with the best games. And when it went wrong and things got out of hand, if someone got hurt or things got broken, Raihan was the first one to grin sheepishly and take the blame. He didn’t have to, but he could. He was strong, like that. And Mrs. Fairweather never really punished him too badly for it, really. Sometimes, when she sent him out to sweep the backyard with the big, wiry broom that was almost as long as he was tall, well aware he was going to end up building piles of leaves to jump into, Raihan suspected she knew, and he liked her a little bit more, if only because she didn’t call him out on it.

For his eighth birthday, Raihan asked to go watch a pokemon battle at the Stadium. The League was not in season, though, so Mrs. Fairweather promised to take him along, in the spring, when Rhys, her youngest daughter, set out to take on the Gym Challenge along with two other of the boys living in the house. Raihan was excited at the prospect and, to sustain his excitement for five months straight, he began reading up on battles as much as he could. He’d like to watch them, but the living room TV was always a hotly contested privilege, and he always felt bad when he won and some of the younger kids who wanted to play videogames or watch something else looked disappointed. Besides, books were a good way to put all that boring schoolwork to some use. What was the point of learning how to summarize chapters and make dumb reference cards, if he couldn’t use it to learn about pokemon battles? What was he supposed to do with all that practice otherwise? His binders were always the neatest and his notes the cleanest, and he liked being thorough and precise because it made Mrs. Fairweather praise him and his teachers cut him some slack when he got carried away playing rough.

Raihan spent months and months reading about rules and moves and strategies and all sorts of boring things until they stopped being boring, in his head. Sure, on its own, knowing that there was a ten percent accuracy difference between head smash and rock wrecker was not particularly impressive. But it became the difference between winning or losing, if one started to play around with the numbers.

And it turned out, Raihan was really good at playing with the numbers.

As the Gym Challenge began, results of all official matches were posted in the large screens in the lobby of Hammerlocke Stadium. Every day, after school, Raihan biked up to the stadium and compared notes with the predictions in his binders. More often than not, he was right. The one persistent surprise, however, was one of the Gym Challengers that sort of consistently defied Raihan’s math. It was interesting, but not something Raihan fixated on, considering he was more interested in following Rhys’ progress. One of the other boys had given up sometime after Stow-On-Side, and Raihan didn’t really blame him, considering his predictions required a full team overhaul and more training than they had time for, to finally match the Gym Leader’s overpowered gothitelle. The other boy got frozen solid by Circhester’s Gym Leader and her ruthless lapras, and then utterly obliterated by Spikemuth’s terrifying tyranitar. There wasn’t even video of the Spikemuth fight – there were never video of the Spikemuth fights, and that was what made them so scary, people went in and either won or lost, but no one really got to see how unless they made the trek and saw the battles for themselves – but the final results matched Raihan’s predictions. Rhys managed to make it all the way to Hammerlocke.

The night before her fight, she came home and they ate pizza and sat in the backyard, meeting her pokemon and playing with them until the sky was dark. Raihan met her gigalith and immediately knew that he wanted one. He asked her questions until she laughed and told him that if he was that desperate to find out, he could go on his own Gym Challenge when he was older.

Raihan rolled his eyes because… of course he was going to go on the Gym Challenge. What else was he supposed to do?

Raihan sat between Rhys and Mrs. Fairweather in the Stadium as they watched all the matches for the day scheduled before Rhys’ own. They mostly went the way Raihan’s notebook said they would, all but that kid with the charizard and the annoying habit to dodge his predictions. Raihan watched aegislash one-shot the Gym Leader’s gigantamax duralodon with a single, well-timed close combat and he admitted to himself he was more excited than annoyed that the battle hadn’t fallen in line with what his numbers said should have happened.

When it was Rhys’ turn, she didn’t fare that well, though.

“You were so close!” Raihan said, as soon as she came out of the challenger’s waiting room and back into the lobby. “You’ll get her in the rematch!”

Rhys looked down at him – seriously, why did everyone look down at him? It wasn’t fair, they were all mutants and tall – and then smiled tiredly, reaching a hand to pat his head.

“I think I’m good, Han,” she laughed, looking exhausted. “I think… I think this is as far as I go.”

“But you can win,” Raihan insisted, eyes wide, “I know you can.”

She laughed and pulled him into a hug, rather than answer.

She did not take on the Gym Leader again.

Raihan was rarely the biggest boy around, and thus not always literally the strongest, but he was the most stubborn. Most bullies tended to leave him alone, if nothing else because he always aimed to kick where it hurt the most and he had no shame about biting when scuffles turned into actual fights. He made a point to stand up for anyone who needed help standing up to others, much to Mrs. Fairweather’s chagrin, considering the school sent notes and sometimes asked her to come in. She never really told him not to, though, if nothing else because Raihan didn’t start fights.

He just happened to be really good at ending them.

One day, maybe a month after his birthday, he was running errands for the lady that ran the café at the end of the street from Mrs. Fairweather’s house, when he caught sight of a group of kids disappearing into an alley just past the gate into the outskirts of town that lead into Route 6, giggling the tell-tale laugh of doing something they shouldn’t. He didn’t have time to go investigate, never mind the fact he wasn’t supposed to go into the alleyways on his own: he was supposed to deliver food to a few of the café’s regulars that were too sick to go get their own and he’d been told repeatedly he should make sure to deliver the food while still hot. And besides, he was strictly forbidden from crossing any of the big gates that separated Hammerlocke proper, from the outskirts built outside the castle walls.

He should have turned around and gone on his way, but he knew that laughter – it was never aimed at him, he kicked and bit and Mrs. Fairweather never got angry at him for it, so they’d quickly learned not to try it on him – and it was not the laughter that followed after a good joke. It was cruel and mean and it usually ended with someone, usually one of the small kids that Raihan had self-appointed himself guardian of, crying into his side.

Raihan licked his lips and turned down the alley, carefully putting down his parcels by the entrance, just to make sure they didn’t get messed up in the – hopefully not, but very likely – upcoming fight.

He approached quietly, eyes narrowed as he strained his ears to hear the excited whispers as the crowd gathered at the end of the alley.

“Throw a rock at it,” one of them was saying, “knock it out and you’ll get to capture it.”

At the very end, pressed against a wall, as a tiny trapinch, snapping its jaws threateningly at the group that had gathered around it.

“Idiot,” someone else snapped, “you can’t capture a fainted pokemon.”

“Well, you’re not doing a great job of capturing this one either, smartass!” The first voice snarled, annoyed. “We only have two pokeballs left!”

“Hey!” Raihan called out, frowning. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“None of your business, kid,” the leader of the gang told him, looking amused at Raihan’s set jaw. “Now scram, before you get hurt.”

Raihan was never really the tallest or the biggest or the strongest.

But boy, he was always the most stubborn.

He bared his teeth.

“Yeah? Make me, dumbass.”

He didn’t win the fight – of course he didn’t, they were seven and he was one, and they were all bigger and stronger and way meaner than he was – but he hadn’t gone into it for the win. He’d gone into it for a chance to get trapinch out of their hands, before they did it harm. More harm. As the rain started, falling thick and icy and so hard it was almost impossible to see ahead, Raihan ran across the streets of Hammerlocke, body curved forward to shield the whimpering trapinch from the rain. It hurt a lot, both the bruises and the cut on his forehead, where someone had thrown a rock at him as he managed to outmaneuver his opponents and snatch trapinch right under their nose. It hadn’t stopped him, but it had made blood start falling down his face and he realized, after the first surprised yell for him to stop, that he looked pretty bad. If he stopped, because people were worried about him, it might be too late for trapinch.

He ran past the Pokemon Center outside the gates, and the one at the center of main street, because he knew neither of them were the ones he needed to reach.

Trapinch, after all, was a baby dragon, and all things dragons had to be dealt with, directly at the Gym.

So Raihan ran and ran, even as his lungs burned and his feet slipped dangerously on the wet sidewalks, ignoring the rain and the way his body ached. He ran all the way into the Stadium and the League personnel that stopped him at the door, asking questions and sounding threatening.

“Please,” Raihan wheezed, barely able to hold himself upright, arms curled tightly around the barely moving trapinch, “please, he’s hurt.”

One of the Gym Trainers approached, disturbed by the commotion, and immediately took over the situation, once they got a good look at Raihan, and more importantly, the trapinch in his care. Raihan followed dutifully towards the Pokemon Center within the Stadium itself, and found himself getting looked after by a reproachful nurse Joy that lectured him on being careful as she patched him up and refused to tell him anything about how trapinch was faring.

Raihan sat in place like he was told, even though he was vibrating with nervous energy. He was definitely in trouble, he knew. Not just because he’d screwed up his delivery – even after he’d made a fuss about being allowed to take the job, even though Mrs. Fairweather insisted he was too young for it – but because it was now dark outside and the storm wasn’t letting up and he got hurt and oh, oh, he was going to be in astounding amounts of trouble. Even Mrs. Fairweather wasn’t going to just let this slide.


He practically bounced off the chair at the sound of his name, and then froze when he realized the figure by the doorway was none other than the fabled Hammerlocke Gym Leader. She was every bit as terrifying from up close than from a far, he thought, watching her arch an eyebrow at him expectantly.

“Ma’am!” He snapped, standing up straight.

“Your guardian’s in the lobby waiting for you,” she said, and then threw an ultraball at him, that he caught almost on reflex. “Now you and your trapinch get the hell out of my Stadium and don’t come back unless it’s to fight for a badge.”

Raihan stared, mouth going dry.

“He wasn’t…” He began, shrinking when she narrowed her eyes at him. “It wasn’t my trapinch.” He blurted out, and then added, almost defensively: “Ma’am.”

“Well, he is now, kid,” the Gym Leader said, and rolled her eyes at him. “Now scram before that guardian of yours starts beating people up with her ridiculous umbrella.”

Raihan ducked his head and ran, out the Pokemon Center and down the corridor towards the Lobby, straight into Mrs. Fairweather’s arms. While she fussed about the bandages nurse Joy had put on his forehead and all the bruises on his face and his arms, Raihan stared up at her with wide, wide eyes.

“She gave me a trapinch, Mrs. Fairweather,” he whispered, clutching the ultraball like it was the most precious thing in the world… which it was. “She said he was mine!”

Mrs. Fairweather laughed, even as she pressed loud, wet kisses to the side of his face, so Raihan reckoned maybe he wasn’t in that much trouble after all.

Trapinch was a lazy, spoiled thing, and Raihan honestly didn’t blame him.

It wasn’t like he was allowed to battle – that was the one thing Mrs. Fairweather had asked of him, stern and serious, looking at him right in the eye, until he promised and meant it – and honestly, trapinch was more of a baby than anything. Raihan wondered what had happened to his parents or how he’d ended up in that alleyway, but then he supposed that was the kind of thing you never really asked, because the answer always ended up hurting someone. So instead, trapinch rode on Raihan’s shoulders and the hood of the hoodies he started wearing, just for that purpose. He wasn’t as heavy as he should be, not just yet, but Raihan reckoned he’d grow up into its proper size eventually. He’d be strong enough to still carry him, if he started now. In the meantime, trapinch played with the smaller kids and begged for treats for anyone who stood still long enough. He slept in Raihan’s bed, curled up against his belly, and he was warm and solid and somehow an excellent nightmare repellant.

Raihan loved him more than he’d ever loved anything, except perhaps Mrs. Fairweather and his mom.

“When you get better,” Raihan told his mom, by the end of each afternoon he spent sitting by her side guiding her hand to pat trapinch’s head, “I’ll show you how strong I’ve really gotten.”

But his mom didn’t get better.

She didn’t even get worse, really. Just… one crisp, spring Thursday morning, so early the sky was still dark, Mrs. Fairweather woke him by sitting on the edge of his bed and brushed her fingers across his forehead. Raihan knew, before she even said anything, just by the way her smile was trembling and her eyes were sad.

He knew.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, and gathered him in her arms as the sobs all rushed up his throat, caught at the back of his tongue, stepping on one another. “Oh, Han, I am so sorry.”

Raihan cried, and yet somehow couldn’t make a single noise, while he did.

The funeral was lonely.

The weird thing was that there were tons of people there, just… not any he knew. Or remembered, since they all seemed to know who he was. Friends of his mom, they said, from school or work or something. Raihan stood next to Mrs. Fairweather and kept his eyes on the floor as he received condolences from the endless parade of strangers that all insisted had loved his mother dearly, even though he’d never seen them at the hospital, not even once. He kept his hands behind his back, trapinch’s ultraball clenched tight between his fingers, to keep himself from fidgeting.

Raihan watched as they placed the urn in the same hole in the wall as his dad’s and felt a sort of awkward lack of anything.

Everything sort of blurred together, after that. Dinner and Mrs. Fairweather’s words, which echoed inside his head like he was underwater, tone soft and kind but utterly meaningless. Raihan found himself going through his daily routine out of sheer inertia, not a single conscious thought required. And since everyone was giving him extra space and taking up on his chores, the really wasn’t much that needed his attention. He found himself sitting in a corner of the couch in the living room, curled around trapinch and staring – not watching – the TV, more often than not.

I’m waiting for you, so you better come and show me how strong you really are!

Raihan found himself blinking at the TV, as the Champion stared intently at the camera and then did his silly pose. Then the ad ended with big letters announcing the upcoming opening ceremony for that year’s Gym Challenge, to be celebrated in Motostoke in a few weeks.

His mom had asked him to be strong, after all.

Raihan licked his lips and looked down at trapinch, who nosed the underside of his chin with a little worried noise. Then he looked around the room, but it was empty, because he was grieving and sad and needed space. He should have been at school, given the time, but he’d just stayed home and Mrs. Fairweather had not made him go.

Raihan swallowed hard, and found it was just as easy standing up and letting trapinch slide into his usual perch on his hoodie, before he started walking. One step, then the next. No one stopped him. No one noticed. After all, he left the TV on and the announcer for the Sinnoh league was loud as anything, so they probably didn’t even hear the door close behind him.

When he finally made it into the Wild Area, he almost turned back.

Distantly, somewhere deep below the thick crust of nothingness inside his head, he knew this was a bad idea. He knew. But he still set out anyway, because no one stopped him. It was raining pretty hard, the same kind of ugly storm that reminded Raihan of the day he’d met trapinch: lightning and thunder and mud everywhere. Trapinch didn’t like the rain, and huddled deep into the hoodie, as Raihan pulled the hood over his head, shielding them both. He didn’t know where he was going, really, only that he was going south, so he huddled around trapinch and ran as fast as he could.

“Shit!” Raihan squawked in surprise, when he tripped and rolled down a slope, before he landed square in front of a very cranky looking toxel.

Then Raihan remembered what toxel’s moveset looked like, and realized that if it only knew nuzzle as an attacking move, trapinch could totally take it down, despite the clear level difference. It was just gonna take a while.

“C’mon,” Raihan said, nudging trapinch until it landed before the toxel and yawned lazily, “I know you can do this!”

Despite his luck – the toxel used growl and nuzzle, and nothing else – Raihan dreaded the fight. It was long and obnoxious and he could tell trapinch was in a hurry to finish it too, each bite getting more and more aggressive until they managed to knock the toxel out. If Raihan had thought this through, he might have stopped by the PokeMart and bought himself some pokeballs.

But obviously he hadn’t, so after nearly twenty minutes of dreadfulness, he didn’t even get to catch a pokemon to show for it.

The battle took so long the stupid thunderstorm stopped and everything, sun now shining harshly across the plains.

Raihan picked up trapinch – unscathed and rather pumped up from his first real battle – and started walking again. The sun was scorching, drying his clothes in the process even as he slowed down because each step became more and more of a chore. It was probably why he stepped on a bit of loose gravel, lost his footing and found himself rolling down a hill with a yelp.

“Uh,” Raihan said, as he found himself crashing into someone’s campsite, coming to a stop a few feet away from their firepit. “Hi.”

The guy sitting by the fire had weird white and black hair and a very squinty look to him, probably because he was squinting at Raihan pretty hard.

“Are you okay?” He asked, voice surprisingly soft.

Raihan licked his lips and sat up, laughing for no reason he could really explain, only that he was tired and hurt and it almost got through the fog. He almost felt it.

“We’re good!” He said, tugging trapinch into his lap, where it began to chew on one of his sleeves, not really aiming to tear it but almost like… a nervous thing. “We won our battle and all.”

“Okay,” the boy replied, though he didn’t sound convinced. “Are you alone? Where are you going?”

“To Motostoke!” Raihan said, and for the first time he realized that was what he was aiming to do, in the first place. At least in theory. “I’m gonna be champion.”

“Without supplies?” The boy asked, frown deepening more and more with each passing moment.

Raihan swallowed hard and then offered his best proud smile.

“Supplies are for losers,” he said, grinning with euphoria he couldn’t even begin to describe, “I’m gonna be champion!”

“You’re going to be grimmsnarl bait,” the boy snorted, and then shoved a bowl of stew into Raihan’s hands. “Eat.”

Later, while he was refilling Raihan’s bowl and scolding him for setting out on his own, he introduced himself as Piers. He was older and stronger and a bit of a dork, really, but Raihan reckoned he was alright. He didn’t even say anything, when Raihan clung to him at night, or when his eyes got suspiciously teary, sometimes.

He was alright.

Piers’ mom was terrifying.

Then again, he’d already known that, back when all he’d known about her was that she was Spikemuth Gym Leader. Her hair was the same two-tone color as Piers’, but where Piers was quiet and generally broody, preferring to sit back and watch Raihan battle things – unless he decided Raihan wasn’t strong enough to fight whatever he’d chosen to fight, then he got all annoying and manhandling-happy – his mom was… not. She had a loud, chortling laugh, more a cackle than anything else and she liked to smile with her teeth, almost like a snarl. She reminded Raihan keenly of her signature pokemon: her massive, feral-looking, ridiculously overpowered tyranitar. The weirdest thing, though, as far as Raihan was concerned, was the fact he wasn’t terrified of her. He should be, of course, everyone knew that people from Spikemuth were shifty and mean and not good, and Spikemuth’s Gym Leader was that but more. But she wasn’t scary, even from up close.

Maybe it was because he’d befriended Piers first, without knowing who he was, and she was toning down the scary because of that. Or maybe she really wasn’t that bad and people were just dumb. But Raihan found himself very at ease in her presence, delighted by the way she threw jokes at him and didn’t spare him her wit or treat him like a little baby. She was loud and rough, but that in itself was nice, somehow. Like she didn’t think Raihan was too fragile, to take the ribbing. Like Raihan didn’t need to be treated like cracked glass, somehow.

“That Fairweather lady seems nice,” Piers said, as they settled into their hotel room in Motostoke, sitting on his bed and giving Raihan a calculating look.

“Mrs. Fairweather,” Raihan corrected, on reflex, because of course she was nice and no one should disrespect her, ever. “Yeah. She is.”

“She’s not your mom, though,” Piers added, slowly, almost tentatively.

Raihan licked his lips, weighed his options and gave up pretending he wasn’t going to crawl into Piers’ bed in the middle of the night.

“No,” he said, going to sit next to Piers, legs pulled up to his chest and toes resting at the edge of the bed. “She’s not.”

This was it, he thought, the moment he’d been dreading. The moment Piers asked and he had to answer and put it into words, somehow. He didn’t realize he’d been bracing for it since they first met, if only because Piers never really asked about it before. He just didn’t talk about himself much, either.

“I’ve got a sister,” Piers said, looking up at the ceiling, “tiny thing, name’s Marnie.” He gave Raihan a side look from the corner of his eye, lips twitching into that quiet smile of his that shouldn’t be reassuring but always was. “I’ll introduce you, when we make it to Spikemuth.”

Raihan grinned, unbearably wet around the edges, but Piers never said anything about that.

“I’d like that a lot.”

As they crossed route 3, Piers caught a stunky – and promptly named him Aaron – but Raihan didn’t really see anything he wanted to add to his team. At least not until they got through the mine exhibit. Piers was skeptical of him catching a roggenrola and not a rolycoly, considering Turffield specialized in grass types. Not to mention Hulbury right after.

But Raihan had a plan.

Granted, it was a plan that wasn’t as exciting as Piers’ battles, since he focused so much on raw attack power to crush his way through the Gyms, but his plan worked: after all, it didn’t matter how super effective a hit would be, if the hit never connected in the first place. He got his badges and a long suffering, but ultimately amused look from the Turffield Gym Leader, along with a loud cackle from Hulbury’s. By the time they made it back to Motostoke, both trapinch and roggenrola were high level enough that he didn’t need to stall with accuracy lowering moves to get through his opponents. Plus, rock was super effective against fire, and he exploited the hell out of that.

“You have a very interesting battling style, young man,” Motostoke’s Gym Leader told him, the day after he’d given Piers and him their badges, and he was now ready to see them off towards Hammerlock and the second leg of the Gym Challenge. “Are you looking to specialize on a type?”

“Maybe! I don’t know yet,” Raihan admitted sheepishly, because it was the truth. “I’ve wanted a gigalith since I saw my… friend’s and trapinch is… well, he’s my partner!”

“Ha, I see,” the man said, and though he looked very stern, his eyes, Raihan couldn’t help but notice, were awfully kind. “I suppose I shall be seeing you, then, in this year’s Championship Cup.”

Raihan grinned with all his teeth.

“Oh, you can bet you will!” He promised, and then squawked indignantly when Piers grabbed his head and forced it forward into a bow.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Piers deadpanned, offering a less severe bow of his own. “We’ll be on our way.”

“Hey-“ Raihan began to protest, but it trailed off when Piers unceremoniously dragged him away, not looking back at the waving Gym Leaders that were there to see them off.

“Less chatting, more walking,” Piers said, shaking his head, “we’re still a long way from the Championship Cup.”

“You are the worst killjoy I’ve ever met,” Raihan whined dramatically, but did in fact continue walking down the massive staircase that connected Motostoke with the Wild Area. “I hope you know.”

Piers, because he was, in fact, the absolute worst, grinned sideways at him.

“I know.”

“Please take the everstone away,” Piers said plaintively, watching Raihan scrub roggenrola’s body with a hard-bristled brush, a process the little guy seemed to enjoy tremendously. “He should have evolved two Gyms ago.”

Raihan snorted.

“It’s his favorite rock,” he explained, because it was, and in fact, roggenrola had been holding the thing, tucked into the depths of its ear, since Raihan first caught him. “I can’t take his favorite rock away, that’d be mean.” Roggenrola made a loud noise of agreement, and then melted under Raihan’s hands again, clearly enjoying the grooming. “Besides, people underestimate unevolved pokemon. It’s all part of the plan.”

“I hate your plans,” Piers muttered plaintively, fingers absently scratching his newly caught toxtricity’s mane of spiky, electrified fur. “I specially hate that they work, too.”

“You sure as hell didn’t hate it when they carried you through Ballonlea,” Raihan singsang, eyes dancing with mischief as he dodged a rag being thrown at his head. “Super effective doesn’t matter, if it never hits.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Piers sighed, “we should stick around the Wild Area for a few days.” He gave Raihan a narrowed eyed look. “Train, maybe catch some more pokemon for our teams.”

“My team is perfect the way it is,” Raihan interrupted, and both roggenrola and trapinch piped up with loud agreements on the fact.

“You have two unevolved pokemon and I promise you, Raihan, my Ma is going to chew you up and spit you out without even flinching,” Piers deadpanned, looking unconvinced. “Hell, you gotta make it through Circhester first, and I heard she ain’t a walk in the park, either.” He was giving trapinch a significant look.

Whatever,” Raihan snorted, “I never say no to training anyway.”

Which was how they ended up staying a whole week around the Dust Bowl, enduring the weather more than anything. Raihan caught a shuckle, mostly because it was tiny, furious and severely under-leveled. The little guy’s perpetual fight me attitude was endearing if nothing else, though he was probably not going to level up fast enough to really pull his own weight in time for the Championship Cup.

Raihan also caught a ferrothorn with a big bone to pick against his newly evolved vibrava, though he had to walk all the way back to Hammerlocke – cranky ferrothorn in tow – to get more pokeballs to actually catch it, since he’d run out by the time she decided to attach herself to his party, after the third time it ambushed him and got defeated.

Piers kept being insufferable about it, which was definitely a plus.

In preparation for Spikemuth’s Gym and all the horrors he knew were waiting for him there, Raihan taught roggenrola explosion.

It was a tactical decision, considering his team was pretty small – shuckle still hadn’t seen a single league fight yet, because Raihan felt bad registering him for battle when he was guaranteed to not survive a single round – and the fact roggenrola seemed on board with the idea.

There was just one tiny problem.

Upon learning the move, roggenrola began exploding whenever he was excited. And considering how much Raihan pampered him and cheered on him during training… yeah, roggenrola exploded a lot.

“You’re an idiot,” Piers snorted, and threw Raihan a pokeball. “Here you go.”

Raihan coughed a bit of smoke – point blank roggenrola explosion wasn’t as devastating as it could be, at least not without a few curses to power it up, though it did leave him stunned for a bit – and finally released the pokemon curiously.

A tiny wooper formed out of light, waving the little branch-like growths around its face and smiling brightly up at him.

“Oooh,” Raihan said, catching on, “wow, thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Piers snorted, as wooper nudged the fainted roggenrola with a foot, “stop exploding all the time.

“D’uh, it’s not that bad!” Raihan snorted, clicking his tongue against his teeth.

Piers buried his face into his hands when, as if to contradict the point, one of his front teeth fell right off.


Raihan laid back on Piers’ bed, in his actual room, and blinked at the fact there were little gem-like stickers on the ceiling that glowed in the dark, like tiny sableye eyes. Besides that, there wasn’t much to say about it, except that it was pretty big, and unlike Raihan, Piers didn’t have to share with anyone. Not even his sister, who was every bit as precious as Raihan had been led to believe. It seemed a bit lonely, in Raihan’s opinion, but he kept it to himself because Piers was prickly about everything, but mostly his home.

“Your Ma,” Raihan said, staring at the ceiling and pointedly not looking at Piers in the eye, “is pretty freakin’ scary.”

“Yup,” Piers agreed, tucking his monster of an obstagoon into a frankly hilariously small bed, which it apparently had used back when it was still a zigzagoon.

Raihan didn’t have much high ground on that matter, considering ferrothorn, vibrava, shuckle and roggenrola were all tucked out outside, sprawled in one of the yards behind the Gym and snoring away their cares.

“You could win,” Raihan said, as Piers slid into bed next to him, carefully not looking at him in the eye. “In a rematch. You could win, if you switched the strategy a bit. You’re strong enough.”

“Maybe,” Piers said, and his voice sounded just like Rhys’, “but I think… I think this is as far as I’ll go.”

Why, Raihan wanted to ask, but didn’t, just like he hadn’t asked Rhys, in the lobby of Hammerlocke Stadium. Something deep inside him knew the answer would be something he didn’t want to hear.

“It’s been fun,” Raihan whispered, rolling onto his side to stare at the older boy in the eye, “traveling with you.” He licked his lips. “Thanks… thanks for not throwing me out.”

Piers stared at him, and then smiled. Just a little.

“I’m forfeiting the Gym Challenge,” he said, like it was no big deal, “not our trip. I promised Mrs. Fairweather I was going to watch your back, no matter how far you went, after all.”

“You’re an asshole,” Raihan hiccupped out, choking on a laugh, and gave into the temptation to hug the big git for his trouble.

“Yup,” Piers agreed, like it was nothing, and then kept on saying nothing, when Raihan didn’t let go of him.

It was terrible, how nice that was.

“Thought I’d sent you packing, kid,” Delilah, Hammerlocke’s Gym Leader, said, at the start of their rematch, “tail between your legs and all.”

Raihan clenched his hands and set his jaw.

“No, Ma’am,” he said, staring at her right in the eye. “I don’t give up.”

“Good!” She laughed, throwing out her massive kommo-o, “true dragon trainers don’t.”

It was a close fight. It was the closest fight in Raihan’s life. He opened with ferrothorn, to set up spikes and slow down whatever came after the kommo-o… and to try its best to get through the kommo-o. Sure, ferrothorn could tank most of the dragon attacks, but a single fire attack – and oh, dragons were notorious for using fire attacks – and she was going down. Which she did, but at least she managed to take kommo-o down with her. Roggenrola managed to barely get through noivern with curse, iron defense and stone edge. Raihan commanded a powered-up explosion to try and get rid of drampa, but it wasn’t enough. Vibrava definitely out sped drampa, but whether a single dragon breath would be enough to take it down was within range of failure.

“Drampa cannot continue to battle!” The referee announced, as the smoke cleared.

Raihan let out a shriek of delight as the bonus experience from that battle was enough to push vibrava into evolving, and felt the screaming euphoria of the stadium bubbling like gas inside his veins as his new flygon landed on the pit before him, claws outstretched and ready to fight the last round.

“Good!” Delilah yelled at him, her own teeth bared, as her gigantamax duralodon roared behind her, stretching out impossibly huge like the looming towers of Hammerlocke itself. “Very good! Show me how sharp are those claws, little drake.”

It took one move, but it had to be the right move. Not dragon claw, as Delilah’s taunt implied, but the one that hit the hardest and got through duralodon’s ridiculous defenses.

“Flygon, use earthquake!”

Raihan stood in dumbstruck silence as duralodon fell and the Stadium erupted in shrieking delight, and even as the referee announced his win, he didn’t know what to do. Then flygon pluck him up clear off the ground and threw him in the air so he landed on his back, and took him around the stadium on a literal victory lap.

“Train hard, little drake,” Delilah told him, as she handed over the badge, “next time we meet in the field, I won’t go easy on you.”

In the Championship Cup, Delilah kept her word.

Despite his training and all the time he spent working his team hard, Raihan was blown away by the power of her hydreigon, which steamrolled his team handily. But, even though the defeat had been pretty crushing – and it was crushing, it put in stark contrast the difference in skill and power between them – Raihan was not sad or bitter or even angry. He felt humbled, to the marrow of his bones, but also determined. He’d just been shown a level of strength he’d never really understood before. It was the difference between reading about it, and actually feeling it, in the deepest corners of his heart.

And more importantly, it was a level of strength he was determined to reach for himself.

He sat in the stands with Piers as Delilah and Piers’ Ma faced each other in the finals, a fight proclaimed to be a mythical clash of Galar’s two most ancient, most renowned dynasties.

“It’s an advertising crock of shit,” Piers insisted, annoyingly unimpressed by the hype around the battle. “The Royal family is technically older than either of ours, though Delilah is kinda related to them, I guess. Like… sixteen times removed or something.”

“How are you so smart?” Raihan despaired, “and so stupid at the same time?”

“Shut up, Raihan,” Piers laughed, lips twitching into a smirk, “your fanboy is showing.”

Piers’ Ma took the win, in the end, because her tyranitar was just that broken, in Raihan’s opinion. He’d have to take that on, next year, and he couldn’t wait to start strategizing about it. Despite Piers’ flippant insistence to pretend he didn’t care about the tournament at all, he leaned in just as much as Raihan did, when the Champion entered the field and prepared to face his Ma.

Raihan was weirdly disappointed to realize he was so small, barely two years older than him but not much taller. But whatever he lacked in size, he made up for it in skill. Having just witnessed the ridiculously overwhelming power of the Spikemuth Gym Leader fighting seriously, Raihan was stuck to his seat, vibrating in place as the Champion skillfully took on her, head on. Every move was calculated and precise, tanking damage or sacrificing an inch for the sake of taking a mile in the long run. It was the sort of elegant, thoughtful battling that Raihan dreamed of mastering: absolute confidence in his team to carry out his designs and the blind trust they had in him, to shoulder damage as required.

It was the most amazing battle Raihan had ever seen.

Raihan promised to call and visit, clinging to Piers with a feral hug when he and his Ma dropped him off back home.

“No more running away,” Piers’ Ma said, one eyebrow arched as she tapped her fingers on his forehead meaningfully. “But you’re welcome to Spikemuth any day, kid, just be sure to get permission first.”

“I will, Ma’am,” Raihan insisted, clutching his bag – he’d acquired a bag, along the trip, along with supplies and souveniers and mementos of their time together – tight to his chest. “Thank you.”

It wasn’t until they were out of sight, that the rest of the kids at home descended on him like a cloud of feral yanmegas. Raihan laughed as he was mobbed with questions and demands – to see his pokemon and his badges and his uniform – and realized he no longer thought of Spikemuth or anyone from there as scary. Not the visceral way his foster siblings clearly did, asking if he’d really become friends with the evil Spikemuth people.

“Welcome home, Han,” Mrs. Fairweather said, standing by the doorway and smiling gently down at him.

“I’m sorry,” Raihan said, staring at his feet, “for running away. It was stupid and irresponsible and mean and I won’t do it again.”

The crowd of children parted easily for her to approach him.

“Are you feeling better?” She asked, forever kind, reaching a hand to tilt his face up.

“Mhm,” Raihan hummed, nodding. He swallowed hard. “Can I go see Mom?” He asked quietly, not looking away. “I wanna tell her how it went.”

“Would you like me to come along?” Mrs. Fairweather asked, head tilted slightly to the side.

“That’d be nice,” Raihan agreed, nodding.

He didn’t tell her he was a Gym Challenge Winner, that she didn’t need to hold his hand to walk down the street, mostly because her grip was gentle and comforting, and probably the only thing keeping Raihan from bursting into dumb, dumb tears.

He didn’t get to train much, the rest of summer. There were younger kids to look after and his team had become a permanent fixture in the yard, playing and being spoiled, much like flygon used to be, when he was tiny and still a trapinch. Raihan made sure that roggenrola was never without wooper around, to make sure the explosions were not actually damaging, since both pokemon were very popular with his foster siblings. It made him happy in a way he couldn’t really explain, watching kids fall in love with pokemon the same way he had. They all wanted to go on the Gym Challenge one day, though Raihan made them all promise to wait until they were old enough and to not be dumb like him and run away for it. He had to be responsible, after all, Mrs. Fairweather expected him to be a good role model, and good role models didn’t remind people they ran away or got into fights or were trouble makers. Though he was and he did, and those stories were definitely the crowd pleasers.

“Han! You’ve got a visitor!”

Raihan looked up just in time to catch a plastic bag aimed at his head.

“You start on Monday, after school,” Delilah said, arching an eyebrow at him as he realized the bag contained a Hammerlocke Gym Trainer uniform, with his number on it. She grinned, teeth bared. “If you’re interested.”

Raihan grinned right back.

Delilah – she hated being called Ma’am, which was deeply weird, and went against every fiber of Raihan’s upbringing, but he was nothing if not willing to obey her – was a spectacularly harsh taskmaster. She wasn’t cruel, though, just very blunt. If she didn’t like Raihan’s work, she had no qualms about letting him know it in excruciating and often demoralizing detail. Conversely, though, if he did something right, she was just as blunt about that, and her words lingered for days mostly because Raihan knew for a fact she wasn’t trying to be nice. Raihan began to look at his tasks not just as things he had to do, but things he could potentially get praised for, if he did it not just right, but right to Delilah’s standards. It was a bit like a battle, sometimes, thinking around to figure out the right way to solve the puzzle.

He liked working at the Gym, though. All he did was train hard with his team, fighting against his fellow Gym Trainers and improving in faster paced battles, which were the Gym’s specialty, and run the occasional errand across the sprawling maze that was Hammerlocke Keep. He got paid for it, too, which meant he always had spare change in his pockets, and the kids back home knew it. Raihan didn’t mind digging into said pockets for treats and gifts, mostly because if he really wanted something, he could ask Mrs. Fairweather herself for it, and the way his foster siblings looked at him like a literal god for being able to afford a little bit of junk food on the side was payment enough, really.

Besides, his fellow Gym Trainers were really nice, giving him tips and suggestions on how to navigate the tasks Delilah set out for him every day. And, barely three months in, he knew himself ridiculously stronger already, than he’d been at the beginning.

So of course, just as he was getting comfortable in his new routine, something, or rather, someone, had to come and disrupt it.

“As of today,” Delilah explained, in the all hands on deck meeting for the day, which were supposed to be held in the morning, but were instead held after lunch every day, to accommodate for Raihan’s schedule, “I have accepted an apprentice who will be serving as Gym Trainer in Hammerlocke. You will not afford him any privilege or special treatment he hasn’t earned for himself.”

Raihan remembered when it’d been his turn, being introduced that way, and taking it as a challenge to make sure everyone knew he’d earned his place. He stared curiously at the redhead standing next to Delilah, who looked to be in his early twenties, at the very least. Maybe older, considering how grumpy he looked.

Worst of all was the cape, really.

What kind of arrogant twit wore a cape in this day and age? Raihan resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose at him.

“I am Lance,” he introduced himself, head tilted back arrogantly, “I am the leader of the Elite Four of the Indigo Plateau, and acting Champion of Kanto and Johto. I am very pleased to join you in serving this ancestral seat of Dragon pokemon.”

No one challenged Raihan to a battle, when he joined the Gym, mostly because Raihan had already beaten them all, during the Gym Challenge, and that was enough. Raihan looked sideways at his fellow Gym Trainers, who looked somewhat dubiously at Lance’s pomposity. Delilah did not like pomposity, as a rule. She laughed in the face of people who paraded their status or tried to act self-important. Since she had significant rank, not just as a Gym Leader, but as a relation of the Royal Family, she could squash anyone who tried to show off without much trouble. Raihan took one quick look at her face, taking stock of her pursed lips and narrowed eyes, and made his choice.

“All of that doesn’t matter,” Raihan said, stepping up and ignoring the fact Lance had to look down at him, just because he was so much taller than him. “You’re in Galar, now,” he went on, “you don’t have much to show for yourself here, do you?”

“If you’re gonna issue a challenge, issue the goddamn challenge, little drake,” Delilah said, over the sound of Lance spluttering.

“Hammerlocke Gym Trainer Raihan,” Raihan said, staring at Lance in the eye, “challenges you to battle. 3v3, standard Galarian rules.”

“I humbly accept,” Lance said, eyes narrowed slightly, “thank you for the opportunity to demonstrate my skill.”

He walked off, presumably towards the pitch, with a ridiculous flip of his cape.

“Raihan,” Delilah said, as soon as Lance was out of earshot. Raihan looked up at her and blinked when she grinned at him. “Break him in, will you?”

Raihan grinned right back.

Well, no holding back allowed, then.

“Dragonite, hyper beam!”

Raihan considered telling Lance that he’d lost already, by using a pokemon not part of the Galarian Pokedex in an official match. But that wouldn’t be fun. And besides, given how much he was underestimating him, he reckoned Delilah would be disappointed in him, if he let him off easy.

He found himself grinning again, when roggenrola tanked the hit and Lance stared in surprise when he did. Sure, roggenrola didn’t have spectacular special defense, but what level did Lance think he was, to expect an OHKO from an attack that was neither same type as the pokemon using it nor super effective against the pokemon targeted?

“Roggenrola, use curse!” Raihan called out, as his first turn, watching his pokemon jump in place with a little roll as he activated the buff. And then, since Lance’s pokemon was stuck on the ground, recharging from the hyper beam, he added, “do your thing, little guy!”

Lance ordered dragonite to dodge the attack, because he thought roggenrola was gonna use an attack that could be dodged in the first place, instead of closing the distance to maximize the effect of the explosion.

It was a very good explosion.

“Neither dragonite nor roggenrola can continue to battle,” Delilah pointed out, almost bored, from the sidelines.

Raihan saw the way Lance’s arm twitched as he recalled his fainted pokemon, clearly angry and embarrassed about the mistake he’d made, and instantly knew he’d win the fight. That was the first thing Delilah had taught him, after all. If you let the fight get you angry, you’ve already lost.

“C’mon, ferrothorn,” Raihan called out as he released his next pokemon, “let’s finish this.”

When Lance threw out a gyarados – a shiny gyarados at that – Raihan felt the physical temptation to remind him that just because it looked like a dragon, it didn’t mean it was.

And in Hammerlocke, that distinction mattered a great deal.

“It was wrong of me,” Lance said, later that day, as they sat down to take a break from repairing the pitch, “to underestimate you.”

Raihan gave him a side look, dropping on the floor next to him and offering him one of the two water bottles in his hands.


The left side of Lance’s face twitched, clearly annoyed that his pompous apology wasn’t being taken as he’d hoped. Arrogant git. But then he sighed, and cracked a laugh, expression softening in a way Raihan hadn’t really expected him being capable of.

“Alright, alright,” he said, reaching a hand to ruffle Raihan’s hair, “you don’t have to be a brat about it.”

Raihan stuck out his tongue at him and ducked out from under his hand.

“You didn’t have to be a git about it, either,” he said, and then squealed in surprise when Lance laughed and threw a bit of water at him.

“Oh, a git, am I?”

Which wasn’t, strictly speaking, terrible, because it was hot out and they had just spent two hours tearing off the damaged turf and replacing it with fresh one, but it was the principle of the whole thing. Of course Raihan couldn’t take that kind of thing just lying down.

“The greaterest git!”

It was actually kind of fun, a bit of a water fight that almost convinced Raihan that Lance was sort of okay, after all, but then the shadow formed above them and they got both thoroughly soaked through by what was effectively a surf. From the stands, they saw Delilah and her drampa looking down on them.

“That turf isn’t going to fix itself,” she drawled at them, looking unamused. “And when you’re done, Raihan, teach him how to reset the obstacle course for the trials.”

Raihan looked at Lance and then at Delilah, and grinned mischievously.

“Yes, Ma’am!”

It was worth the sound Lance made, when they got hit with another surf for his impertinence.

Raihan laughed himself hoarse, when Delilah gave Lance a deino as his first dragon to look after, though he was admittedly impressed by Lance’s insistence to keep the cape on, despite the feral ball of bad temper and incessant biting constantly attached to the edge of it. He took to throwing roggenrola at him, whenever he caught Lance slacking off: that was to say, whenever Lance wasn’t busy trying to convince his deino to stop eating his cape. Roggenrola was always happy to be caught in someone’s arms, and whenever roggenrola was happy – and quagsire was not around to help – he exploded. Having been on the receiving end of those excite-booms himself, as Raihan liked to call them, he knew for a fact they weren’t nearly as strong as an actual attack. They left one stunned, not hurt. So he reckoned there was no foul in letting Lance experience them first hand.

Raihan didn’t really expect to be given a dragon himself, considering he already had flygon – flygon was the best, after all – but a week before school went on break for winter holidays, Raihan came into the Gym to find everyone freaking out and not stopping long enough to explain why. Raihan knew better than to get in the way, though, after one quick glimpse of Delilah’s furious face as she stormed the corridors, so he focused on his job for the day – clean up the snow buildup in the rescue enclosure. Most dragons were not particularly fond of snow, and as winter storms came in strong every other night, it was important to stay on top of it. Despite the fact that most of the jobs that required him to stay in the enclosure were basically cleaning, one way or another, Raihan was inordinately proud of himself whenever he got assigned to do them: he was only one of three people who could go into the enclosure on their own, without a safety buddy, because the dragons there liked him enough to accept him coming and going as he pleased.

He didn’t tell Mrs. Fairweather, though, because that seemed like the kind of thing she’d worry needlessly about.

“Poachers,” Lance told him as he took off his battered cape, when they crossed paths in the locker room. “Raided a nest in the Lake of Outrage.”

“Oh,” Raihan replied, sitting down on the bench, and watched as Lance pulled off the singed, torn uniform shirt off with a snort. “Did… did any of the dragons get hurt?”

Lance thinned his lips, frown dipping his eyebrows as he stared straight into the depths of his locker like it held the answers to the world. Then he shrugged and pulled a clean shirt to slide over his head.

“We made sure the poachers could do no further harm,” he said, careful to not look at Raihan in the eye.

Raihan didn’t get a chance to call him out on not answering the question, because Delilah stormed into room, yellow eyes narrowed and all but glowing with sheer rage.

“You, go home,” she barked, pointing a finger at Lance, and then looked down at Raihan the same way her kommo-o looked down at an opponent before curbstomping them into the dirt. “You, my office. Now.

Raihan caught sight of Lance wincing just as he scurried away to comply. Even he knew better than to test Delilah’s temper when she was clearly out for blood. He couldn’t really remember ever seeing her so angry before, either.

“I have a job for you,” Delilah said, before Raihan was done closing the door to her office. “It’s going to be hard and annoying and long term, but you’ve done something similar before. Are you up for it?”

Before he’d become a Gym Trainer, Raihan would have said yes without question. He knew better now.

“If you think I can do it,” he said instead, almost cautious, “then I can do it.”

Half of Delilah’s mouth pulled into a lopsided smirk, clearly pleased with that answer.

“I would have preferred to wait a while longer still, before you started on this part of your training,” she said, leaning back on her chair, “but this needs to be done now and… it’s honestly the easiest I can see this going. Here,” she added, and threw an ultraball at him.

Raihan felt déjà vu crawling up and down his spine as he caught the ball and then tentatively pressed the button to release the pokemon inside. A noibat flopped onto the ground, the tiniest noibat Raihan had ever seen, at that. So small it couldn’t even fly yet, as it stared up at Raihan with terrified tiny eyes and immediately began to cry. Raihan felt his heart break right at the middle.

“Hey,” he said, folding down onto the floor and slowly reaching out to hold it. “Hey, don’t be scared. Shh.”

“You’re not training this one,” Delilah explained, as Raihan cradled the still crying baby in his arms. “You’re going to rear it. Your goal is to get it ready for release back into the wild.”

Raihan swallowed hard.

“I don’t know how to do that,” he said, because he didn’t.

Delilah shrugged.

“That’s exactly what you’re gonna learn, little drake,” she said, and then snorted. “Taking care of little-er drakes.”

Well, Raihan never backed down for a challenge, and this wasn’t going to be a first.

Ever since he joined Hammerlocke, Lance kept getting assigned to the same duties Raihan did. Raihan took this to mean Delilah didn’t really care if he continued to pull pranks and annoy the pompous git, and the fact Lance had learned to loosen up enough to maybe joke back was something Raihan was very proud of.

The months piled on, and while Lance worked hard and coaxed his deino into a zweilous through a strict training regime that mostly involved throwing them repeatedly at Raihan’s team, Raihan found himself trying his very best to not give orders to his noibat. She wasn’t his, either, strictly speaking. She was meant to be free, one day, and that meant Raihan had to try his best to teach her all the skills she’d need to thrive in the wild: not moves or strategies, but… other stuff.

It was hard.

It was really hard, mostly because he had to socialize her enough that seeing humans didn’t send her back into the crying and panicking mess she’d been at the beginning, but not so much that she was too comfortable with them. It was infinitely more complicated and stressful than straight up training her would be, and Raihan was at least grateful to have Lance around, because his struggles to get his irascible beast of a zweilous to listen to him for five minutes was at least a consolation that he wasn’t the only one suffering. Misery loving company, and all that.

Raihan did what he always did, when he was presented with a problem he didn’t know how to solve: he read about it. Lucky for him, the archives at the Vault and the library at the Stadium had every possible book ever written about dragons, wild and otherwise. There was just one slight hitch with that plan: the books agreed on a ton of things, about training dragons, but when it came to rearing, Raihan couldn’t find two that agreed on pretty much anything.

“Dragon types have always been some of the most devastatingly powerful pokemon,” Delilah told him, when he brought up this to her, “so they’ve always been seen as opportunities. To do battle, to defend something. All is possible, if a dragon stands by your side.” She smiled, head tilted to the side. “Unfortunately, that means that not a lot of people have been willing, over the years, to simply let them be. That’s why Hammerlocke took up on that mantle, ages ago, to protect those no one thought needed protecting at all.”

Raihan found himself coming back to that phrase, protect those no one thought needed protecting, over and over again, after that.

It sounded like something he could see himself doing, for the rest of his life.

Sometimes, Delilah had important Gym Leader things to do, like negotiating with the Macro Cosmo people that wanted to build a power plant beneath Hammerlocke Stadium, or receiving visits from her family, either extended or the specific members of her immediate one, that she didn’t particularly get along with.

Since she was very much not up for doing that kind of thing, those were the times Delilah decided it was her job as the Gym Leader of the Oldest, Largest Gym in Galar to look after the other Gym Leaders and make sure they were doing alright. This mostly involved her jumping on her hydreigon and flying off into the distance before someone could come and tell her there were Important People looking for her.

As the person designated to let her know precisely when someone was about to come tell her that, Raihan often got to tag along on those visits.

There was something deeply comforting in riding flygon’s back and flying in the shadow of Delilah’s hydreigon, exploring Galar in an entirely different way that he’d had, during the Gym Challenge. The reception was very different, too, when they arrived at the various Gyms. Often, Delilah would detour to buy gifts – mostly wine, unless they were heading to Spikemuth, then it was always scotch – and then shoo Raihan upon arrival, telling him to explore and not come back for an hour or three. Raihan enjoyed hanging out with his fellow Gym Trainers, who very often felt obligated to show him around their hometown and sometimes even challenge him to a fight or two.

On one such trip, as Raihan found himself in charge of entertaining the Circhester Gym Leader’s children, the oldest of whom was eight.

“Can I tell you a secret?” The boy, Gordie, asked, as he and Raihan watched his sister go about building herself a snow castle.

“Sure,” Raihan replied, huddled inside the warmth of his hoodie, hands wrapped tight around a cup of hot cocoa.

“I hate that you’re a Gym Trainer in Hammerlocke now,” he confessed, looking intently at his feet as he kicked a bit of snow until the dark ground beneath was revealed. “You’re going to focus on dragons now.”

“Oh,” Raihan said, blinking, “is that… is that bad?” He asked, awkwardly unsure of how to react.

“I just thought your roggenrola was cool,” Gordie said, shrugging. “No one ever thinks rock types are awesome, but you got all the way to the championship with one as part of your team and kept winning with it.”

“I’m not going to stop using roggenrola just because I’m learning dragons, though,” Raihan pointed out, mostly because roggenrola was a cornerstone of his team and also the first pokemon he’d ever caught, the thought of not using him anymore was too distressing to even consider. Then he smiled. “You really like rock types, huh?”

“They’re cool,” Gordie insisted and then looked away.

“They are!” Raihan agreed, and offered a smile. “Maybe you should focus on rock types, when you go on the Gym Challenge.”

Gordie stared up at him with wide eyes.

“That’s not allowed,” he said, voice low.

“Why not?” Raihan asked, blinking.

“Circhester has always specialized in Ice,” Gordie recited solemnly, giving Raihan a dubious look. “Dark in Spikemuth, Dragon in Hammerlocke, and Ice in Circhester. Since always.”

“So?” Raihan shrugged. “Ballonlea used to be Psychic, since always , but then Leader Opal inherited and she decided to focus on Fairies instead. Same with Stow-On-Side being Ground and Leader Kyle changing it to Psychic.” Gordie opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it, brow furrowed, seemingly unable to actually argue Raihan’s point. Raihan shrugged. “If you inherit, you could totally make Circhester into a Rock focused Gym,” he pointed out, head tilted to the side, “and if you don’t inherit… well, then there’s no reason not to go for Rock types only, either.”

“My starter is going to be a snom,” Gordie said petulantly, “just like every kid in Circhester, and I’m going to focus on Ice types, just like every kid in Circhester.”

Raihan looked at him and the pout tugging at his bottom lip, and licked his lips, preparing to do something really stupid.

“Raihan!” Delilah called from the doorway leading back into the Gym, before he could say anything. “We’re going.”

“Coming!” Raihan called, grinned down at Gordie, and then winked as he shoved a pokeball into his hands.

A week later, when Delilah asked why she hadn’t seen his shuckle around the Gym lately, Raihan grinned and shrugged and refused categorically to explain himself.

By the time spring came around and the Gym Challenge was announced, Raihan was ready to give it his best.

He was surprised to find out Lance was staunchly not participating, considering he was looking forward to watching him try to get through Ballonlea with his dignity intact, but Raihan wasn’t really heartbroken about it. He got to hang out with Piers – not like he didn’t visit often and called every week, dutifully, but it was different when they were on their own, camping in the Wild Area – and refine his team – Piers still bitched about it, relentlessly – and face the significantly harder Gym battles as a return contender.

It wasn’t easy, getting through the Gym Challenge, but he knew what he was getting into.

The battle against Circhester’s Gym Leader was a lot more brutal than Raihan had been expecting, particularly considering how badly flygon was matched for it, but ferrothorn and roggenrola managed to carry him through it, even getting grudging praise from Leader Melony for his efforts. And after that, Piers’ Ma and Delilah were hard, sure, but not close. Not the way his first go had been, where really he’d succeeded by the skin of his teeth and flygon going above and beyond at every turn. Raihan felt his skills were challenged, sure, but also that he was proving that, his skill. Not his luck.

His skill was still lacking, in the end, as Piers’ Ma was all too happy to demonstrate.

Raihan wasn’t bitter or angry or disappointed: he tried his best, and his best still wasn’t good enough. That only meant his best could still be better. Stronger. After all, Piers’ Ma faced the Champion in the field, just like the year before, and just like the year before, the Champion prevailed, after another of those beautiful, elegant matches that Raihan wanted desperately to master somehow. Every move mattered, every choice and prediction and look. Piers rolled his eyes at him, as they walked back to the hotel and Raihan shamelessly gushed at him about every tiny detail as he tried to memorize everything at once.

And then, just as they entered the lobby, Raihan realized the Champion was there, standing right in the middle of the reception area, looking around like he didn’t know where to go.

“Raihan-“ Piers hissed, but too late to stop Raihan from walking up to him, jaw set.

“Congratulations on your victory!” Raihan said, planting himself in front of the older boy, who was annoyingly just barely taller than him, sans hat. “I look forward to defeating you next year!”

Golden eyes lit up on the spot and a wide smile tugged at his lips.

“I was really hoping you’d win against Lydia,” he confessed, reaching out to hold Raihan’s hands and shake them up and down in excitement. “I’ve always wanted to fight your roggenrola, and your flygon is a monster.”

Raihan had a moment of blank incomprehension, having never expected to be personally recognized that way, and then found himself grinning right back, euphoria bubbling up under his skin.

“Next year, for sure,” he promised, “gonna send you flying, for sure! Hell, I’d fight you right now if you wanted.”

“I accept,” the Champion said immediately, letting go of Raihan’s hands and reaching out for an ultraball hanging off his belt. “But it has to be quick, or I’ll be late to the press conference, so… 1v1?”

“You’re on,” Raihan said, voice gone hoarse with bottomless excitement.

“Oh god,” Piers whimpered in the background, and from the corner of his eye, Raihan saw him bury his face into his hands.

He didn’t win, of course. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat Piers’ Ma, obviously he wasn’t strong enough to take on the Champion. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that he got to battle the Champion, and even if it was rushed and unofficial and just a bit of a scuffle in a hotel lobby, Raihan could see how skilled the other was. How he went from cheerful and friendly to determined and serious in the space of a heartbeat.

“Next year,” the Champion mouthed at him, after the battle, as he was escorted away by a pair of League employees that gave Raihan not very friendly looks.

The next Gym Challenge couldn’t come soon enough.