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everybody says that nothing ever lasts forever, so I'm hanging on tight trying to keep it all tied together

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It’s not a date, Nessa tells herself, it’s just… tutoring. Right. That’s all.

She still fusses with her clothes and the realization she doesn’t have anything properly suitable for that – she’s in the middle of the Gym Challenge, all she has is her hiking gear and her league uniform, and none of it is anywhere near as flattering as she suddenly needs it to be – but rather than backtrack all the way home, she bites the bullet and ventures into the fashion street in Hammerlocke. Some of the most popular designers in Galar have their boutiques there. The real ones, at least, not just the transplants in Wyndon that only show the superficial trendy stuff. Nessa cobbles together a decent outfit, phones her dad and promises it’s worthwhile before she charges it to his credit card. That’s supposed to be for emergencies, but this, she insists, it’s one such case. Her dad laughs – he always laughs, indulgent, because she’s his little girl and he’d give her the moon on a platter if she asked, but she doesn’t, because she’s not spoiled – and wishes her luck, so she sends him a picture flashing a victory sign.

Sonia looks fastidiously perfect, when Nessa meets her outside the café.

She always does. She wears heart-shaped pins in her hair, the old, metal kind that were in vogue maybe thirty years ago, and they look lustrous and shiny in a way that makes Nessa wonder where she found them. Her nails are always perfect, too, solid, bright colors that match her earrings or her sweaters or both. And the sweaters! All her sweaters are soft and brightly colored and Nessa has scoured the web more than once, trying to find where they come from, but it’s like Sonia has magicked them into existence. Which, to be fair, Nessa thinks she might have.

There’s something deeply understated about the older girl that keeps tripping Nessa, every step of the way. A careless air to her, like being so pretty and cool is truly nothing remarkable, as far as Sonia is concerned. It’s maddening, honestly.

“Training first!” Sonia says, as they walk over to the public battle park, “cake and sweets later! That’s how I got through my Gym Challenge, honestly.”

“Mm,” Nessa replies, very acutely aware of how closely they’re walking together and wondering if it looks like they’re out on a date.

They’re not, obviously, but what if they look like it? What if someone says something? This is Hammerlocke, of course, but Nessa is used to Hulbury, where restaurant owners are always cheerfully willing to give discounts or offer treats for couples, as part of the town’s push to be seen as Galar’s romantic capital. Young people in love, her mother says, often, are very good for business.

But that’s silly, because she’s not in love with Sonia – and most importantly, Sonia isn’t in love with her – and they’re not on a date, so it’s fine.

It’s fine.

“Raihan’s pretty tough!” Sonia says, as they take their places on an empty battlefield. “He’s always been, even before he became Gym Leader, he’s the Champion’s rival after all.”

There’s something, in the way she says that, that piques at Nessa’s curiosity, but while they’re friends – only friends, that’s all, nothing more – they haven’t known each other long enough to ask too many probing questions. It’s not fair, Nessa concludes, that they met the way they did: because the café mistook their identical orders as a typo and only served them one, and Sonia was chipper enough to propose they shared. And of course, she smiled and chat her up, and Nessa ended up ranting about how embarrassing it had been to lose to the Motostoke Gym Leader, afire type expert, when she was hoping to specialize herself inwater types. Sonia was then what Nessa has come to realize she always is: kind and cheerful and encouraging. Some cake and a pep talk from a kind stranger had all that she’d needed to go back there and try again. And she’d won, too, but by then Sonia was gone and Nessa hadn’t thought that far ahead to ask for her number or any kind of contact information, so she hadn’t been able to share the news until she ran into her again, in the wild area. Then they’d met again in Ballonlea and Circhester, and Nessa would think it strange or suspicious, but Sonia had pointed out early she was just running errands for her grandmother, who turned out to be Professor Magnolia. Suddenly everything about Sonia made sense, sort of, how special she is.

Nessa wonders, as Sonia coaches her through a few good doubles strategies, if anyone has ever told Sonia that. She’s pretty and smart and kind, so of course they must have. Surely.

Nessa still kind of wants to tell her, though.

Just in case.

“I had a lot of fun, today,” Nessa says, as they’re parting ways – Nessa has a hotel room reserved for her, as a Gym Challenger, and apparently Sonia is taking a train to… somewhere. She wants to ask and it’s physically painful to restrain herself. “Thank you for your help.”

“I’m glad!” Sonia replies, eyes bright and not a single hair out of place, despite the fact she spent four hours showing Nessa every possible way in which she could lose, playing doubles, and that yamper of hers is definitely going to join the nightmare rank for a few of her own pokemon. “I can’t wait to watch your rematch! It’s going to be amazing.”

The words spill out without a second thought:

“Maybe we can share another cake to celebrate, if I win.”

Sonia beams.

“It’s a date, then!”

It’s not, Nessa thinks despairing, but she desperately wishes it were.