Marnie grew up being loved.
Her parents loved her. Her brother loved her. Her entire town loved her. Nothing she ever wanted was too much. Nothing she ever did was forbidden. She was loved and cared for and for the longest time, she never really saw what it cost. Then the ground opened up into maws that devoured most of her home, stole her mother and her brother’s smile. And they tried, to their credit, those that remained, they tried their best to shield her from it. To hide away the ugly bits encroaching into their lives. The endless hoops they had to jump through, to get anything done. The way they hoarded everything, stretching it to make it last, with the underlying fear they wouldn’t be able to get more, once it was gone.
When she set out to complete the Gym Challenge, she expected to hate the world outside. After all, that was the world that rejected her brother and her people and insisted on calling them evil, because they were too dumb to know how to call Dark by name. No one would have been upset, she reckoned, if she hated everything and everyone living beyond the makeshift walls of their labyrinth.
She didn’t try very hard, sure, but if there was one thing her old man taught her was that there’s no point in making an effort to hate something. Or loving. Love and hate, they were only worthwhile if they came freely. And that overly bright, senselessly chipper world… it wasn’t worth hating. Some of it was quite endearing, even.
Marnie wasn’t a child anymore. She wasn’t small and sheltered and kept separate from the world, good and bad alike. The championship dream had stayed a dream, after all was said and done, but what she’d really wanted, why she’d chosen that goal in the first place, had been accomplished all the same: Spikemuth with doors wide open, trade and people, flowing through the streets once more. She’d fought her brother in the remnants of the mines, put up all her strength behind it, and when she’d walked out and he’d raised her hand and shouted to their audience his defeat, Marnie’d felt it, the weight of Spikemuth itself settling on her back like a well-worn jacket or the Champion’s silly cape.
Since then, it was her people and her town, and she felt like one of Raihan’s dragons, nested atop her hoard.
Rose had tried to destroy Spikemuth, to sink them into obscurity, snuff them out like the wick of a candle under a cup, starved for air. Piers had done his best, focused on survival, on making sure they endured. Under her brother, Spikemuth closed ranks and worked their best to wait out the storm raging outside their doors. Eventually, Rose was gone and the storm abated. And now it was Marnie’s turn to decide how they would face the new, changed world the former chairman had left behind: all the new changes and promises for reparations, attempts to heal what had been torn apart.
Marnie could have chosen to keep their fortress walls up high, doors locked tight. They had survived that long, after all, they could survive much longer still, far longer than most people gave them credit for. They were Dark, to the last one of them, and nothing was more resilient than Dark. They would have preferred it, honestly, if she had her brother’s sedate nature and her strength was like his, about endurance and restraint.
Marnie had thrown the doors wide open instead, put her face and her voice out in the forefront and made sure absolutely no one could ignore the fact that she was there, that she represented Spikemuth and that she wasn’t going away any time soon.
Most people had commented, some snidely, some not, about how different her approach was, to her brother’s.
The really stupid ones, though, they had tried to invoke a memory of her mother and expected her to be something of a second coming.
Marnie knew she wasn’t like her mother; she didn’t have much of her left to begin with, to really try and build a roadmap into becoming her. Not that she wanted to be her, anyway. Her Ma had been strong and feral and content to sit on her throne, deep in the dark of the city that rejected the sun. She liked fleecing fools for money and pride, and reveled in the fearsome reputation that Spikemuth had built over centuries of isolation and the seemingly bottomless riches from their mines.
Marnie didn’t want Spikemuth to be feared, she wanted them to be understood.
She wanted her people to be praised for their character and loyalty and all the sacrifices they had made, in the face of Rose’s betrayal and abuse, to somehow manage still to give their children a reason to smile, despite it all. Her people were strong and stubborn and proud and silly and not at all evil. It was high time Galar got the memo, and figured it out.
Almost two years later, she reckoned she was making good progress. The next Gym Challenge would coincide with the opening of the new stadium, and Spikemuth would finally be on the same level as all other seats of the League. Economy was booming in town, spreading out slowly and steadily, and Marnie read more and more articles each week, talking about Spikemuth’s traditions – the polarized glass domes keeping sunlight away, the role of jewelry in everyday life, their regional accent and their parties, oh, how everyone loved their parties, it turned out – in a much more inviting tone, rather than the patronizing one they had used, back when she first started making the rounds in official League events. It was slow work, sure, but it was the kind that was deeply satisfying. Every day she could walk the streets of town and see the new businesses opening up, the new families moving in. Spikemuth was now the sort of town that people would consider moving into and raise a family in.
And sure, with every wave of newcomers, a little more of their Dark got a bit diluted, a bit more diffused. They weren’t purely Dark anymore, they couldn’t be. There were new people and new stories and new ways of doing things, sneaking in steadily into Spikemuth, changing the town just as much as Marnie was trying to let Spikemuth change the world outside. But it was fine, she reckoned. Some of the strongest, most powerful Dark type pokemon were also a secondary type. And that didn’t make them any less Dark, in the end.
It’d be fine.
They were fine.
Marnie herself, though, she woke up one day and realized she wasn’t fine. It’d been almost two months, now, since she’d seen her girlfriend or even heard anything at all from her. Gloria was fickle, in general, prone to getting an idea and running off to see it through without always fully considering the consequences. Marnie generally found it endearing, willing to stand back and… spectate, for lack of a better word, as her tiny niblet of a girlfriend went about unleashing chaos everywhere she went. And truth be told, as a former Champion, there were very few things out in the world that could really hope to put a dent in her mood most of the time. But she usually reached out, even in the middle of her chaos, to give Marnie a heads up about it. Two months was too much, even for Gloria at her most… Gloria.
Marnie pondered this as she went through her morning rituals: a nice cold shower to wake up properly, fixing her hair and choosing a variation of her uniform for the day, and then sitting down to eat eggs and toast while watching the news. Gloria had gone home for the holidays, but it had been too long now, since she’d last heard from her. No texts or voice mails, not even a picture or a pithy little nonsense line in social media – Raihan hated Gloria’s social media presence with a passion, and Marnie couldn’t help but find it funny, considering she knew how much production he put into his, and how little she did hers. Two whole months of utter radio silence. It was… unusual.
Something, she reckoned, sliding her jacket on, because it was still chilly out, would need to be done about it.
“Boss!” Alex, one of the senior Gym Trainers and founding members of Team Yell, rushed at her the moment she stepped out of the house. “Morning, Ma’am!”
Every morning, he walked her to her office, chatting up about what the day was going to be like and what she was expected to do. Back before the new Stadium was built, her office was up in one of the sturdiest buildings left after the earthquake, the same one Piers had once used as a studio before he got the fancy record deal and started recoding in Hammerlocke proper. Alex was viciously proud of this duty and she knew for a fact fought others for a chance to do it. It kept them all in shape, so she didn’t mind it – Team Yell and Spikemuth’s Gym Trainers alike were strictly forbidden from picking fights with outsiders, but she knew better than to even try to tell them to not pick fights with each other, so she called it training and figured it was a good compromise.
But now Spikemuth’s brand new Stadium was virtually done – there were entirely too many tiny details still pending and apparently she had to approve and look after every single one of them, which was nonsense when compared to what little upkeep their old arena needed, what with the fact it was concrete and chain-link fences and little else – and there were offices and meeting rooms and locker rooms in it. It was also two miles outside of town, proper, but she liked walking there, early in the morning. She liked walking the streets of her town and greet her people, every day. It kept her grounded.
“So me and the guys,” Alex was saying, shuffling his binder and its bottomless depths, “we’ve been thinking, yeah? For the Chairman’s meeting, today, maybe we could—”
“Alex,” Marnie said, voice soft, and watched dispassionately as he fumbled with his stack of papers and then stood up to attention, all but saluting in the process. “Please send the Chairman an apology, I will not be meeting with her today.”
The meeting was very important, of course. It had been scheduled weeks in advance, considering the Chairman was a busy woman and her time was precious. But so was Marnie’s.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Alex replied, voice steady even though he was frowning.
Marnie had long stopped hoping she could ever hope to make him stop with the Ma’am’s, honestly. She was better at picking her battles.
“You should probably cancel the rest of my meetings for today, and maybe tomorrow.” She paused, frowning. “Or send someone in, instead. Maybe Tina.”
Tina was good at making deals and taking control of unruly meetings. She looked rather fearsome too, even without the face paint – League regulations didn’t outright ban it, of course, but the Chairman did frown upon it, so the technical difference between people being Team Yell Grunts and Spikemuth Gym Trainers was often whether they’d remembered to wash their face or not, before going into the staff room – and Marnie trusted her to do what needed doing, always.
“You’re going out?” Alex asked, as Marnie turned away from the road leading to the Stadium and instead headed outside the city gates, towards the flying taxi stop by route 9.
“Mm,” Marnie replied. “To Postwick,” she added, with a little shrug. “Might take a couple days to get back. Hold the fort, will you?”
He looked like he might cry.
“Yes, Ma’am! Thank you, Ma’am!”
Her people, her town, but yeah, sometimes they were a lot.
The first time Marnie met Gloria, she’d thought she’d stumbled into a witch’s lair.
There she’d been, stirring a pot of curry, with a small legion of Poison type pokemon crowding around. Far too many pokemon to be her own, which had struck Marnie as odd. Wild pokemon were not prone to joining camps and following people around without picking fights. But there was Gloria, and her pot of curry, and her small army of Poison types, like something straight out of a fairy tale. Then Gloria had noticed her there, standing by the sidelines, and smiled brightly before inviting her to join them for lunch. Marnie had never understood why the protagonists in those kinds of stories always sat and ate from what was clearly a witch’s pot, until that moment.
Before she knew it, she was sitting on a log next to her host, and her pokemon were seated around the large plates that had been served for the crowd of wild pokemon waiting their turn. Marnie had been so flustered both by the food and the endless string of cheerful chatter from her host, that she hadn’t even offered to battle her. She hadn’t even introduced herself. She’d sat and ate what was put in her plate – too spicy for her liking, but… nice, all the same – and then sort of sat there while Gloria took away her plate when she was done, and went about packing up the whole thing. Marnie had watched the wild pokemon turn away as soon as they were done eating, and wondered if she too should do the same.
“I think she wants to go with you,” Gloria had said, not looking at her, as she dried the stack of plates and put them away into her ridiculously huge bag, that still somehow didn’t seem big enough to hold everything she was carrying, like a proper witch’s bag.
Marnie had stared down at the croagunk sitting by her leg and realized it was staring up intently at her, expectant. She’d thrown the duskball at it more out of curiosity than any real desire to catch it – Fighting and Poison were not types she was particularly interested in, by themselves, and she already had a Fighting type in her team at that point, anyway, in scraggy – expecting the croagunk to break out of it immediately. She hadn’t. She had in fact become a cornerstone of her team and remained in her active roster all the way into the Championship tournament and beyond.
It was one of the pokemon Marnie always carried with her, as part of her team. She knew she was different from other Gym Leaders, and even other trainers, because she didn’t catch that many pokemon. She didn’t need to, she didn’t think. Her team was small but strong and well put together.
Perhaps that was why in the end she wasn’t the person Gloria thought of, when she talked about her rival: Marnie didn’t want to win, not with that visceral, borderline manic fervor Gloria – and Hop – did. Marnie just wanted to be good enough.
And she was.
Her corviknight taxi landed in front of Wedgehurst train station, and she started down route 1 without even bothering to acknowledge the conspicuous whispers at her appearance. She stood out in Wedgehurst and Postwick, and she knew it. Her boots and her uniform and her jewelry and the recent addition of Spikemuth pink into her hair. She was as far removed from Postwick and the handful of people who called the tiny village home, as a fish trying to figure out how to fly. She didn’t care, though. Some fish did fly, after all. And she wasn’t there for Postwick or any of the people squinting at her suspiciously. She was there to check in on her girlfriend, and all that mattered was that she wanted her around.
Marnie chose purposefully not to worry overmuch what would happened if it turned out Gloria didn’t want her there, much the same way she’d learned to ignore potential bad outcomes when making plans. After all, her dad liked to point out that if one stopped to carefully consider the odds, no one would gamble on anything ever. He would know.
It was early still – mornings started early, in Spikemuth, and not just because sometimes the nights ran into mornings some days – but there were people going around on their business. Winter was almost over, and the snow had thinned out significantly. It was cold, and Marnie huddled in the depths of her coat, watching the large herds of wooloo shift about in the plains, like immense clouds at ground level. She wondered what it’d feel like, to jump onto one of them, and bounce off their springy wool. She wondered if Gloria had ever done that, when she was younger. Maybe she’d ask.
Marnie reached Gloria’s house just as the sun was starting to peek over the mountain range in the far distance, the sky still more orange than blue. There was a vast field on the left side of the house, bordered by the stone fences that painted arbitrary borders along the fields of grazing wooloo and pressed up right against the river that crossed Postwick in two. The last time Marnie had visited, the field was thick with knee-high grass, the only one in the entirety of the plains not sheered by a herd of wooloo, and instead covered in wild flowers. That day, as she approached, the field was white, crusted in ice and a thin sheet of snow. All but the center of it, where Gloria stood, still in her nightgown – she wore nightgowns, which Marnie found out the first time she stayed in Spikemuth overnight, actual nightgowns, with lacy edges and cute ribbons sown into the cuffs and the hems – bare feet pressed against the muddy soil uncovered by the melted snow in a five feet radius. As Marnie approached, ice cracking beneath the heel of her boots, she realized the ground beneath Gloria was faintly purple, and a sweet, sickly scent was spreading across the field.
Then Gloria gasped, the moment Marnie stepped onto that circle of bare earth, heels digging in but steps still sure, and turned to look at her, a glimmer of red in her eyes as she startled.
For a moment, Marnie struggled with the words. She was bad with words. Words were hard and frustrating and she hated that she had to explain things that were self-evident and obvious. She hated that. And then the moment passed and she reached a hand to tilt Gloria’s face up, and in doing so the motion became simple, fluid. Leaning in to press her mouth against hers, it was the most self-evident, obvious thing to do. Everything about Gloria, Marnie reckoned, was always easy. Comfortable. Smile and hold hands and kiss and wake up tangled in the same sheets. It was fine.
Then the frisson of the kiss gave way to a yawning, sudden shift in pressure, almost like a pop but in slow motion, and the whole of Nat was there, curled up around them, head tilted low and scales and spines rattling dangerously. Where he touched the ground, the snow melted, burned away straight into steam, and maybe that was what caused the shift in the air, or maybe it was just the threatening chirr.
“Ah,” Marnie said, clearly unfazed by the display, “I see.”
She had not grown up listening to Raihan ramble on about dragons for nothing, after all.
“Do you?” Gloria asked, voice low, looking up at her from under her lashes as she worried the sleeves of her nightgown with her fingers, tugging at the ribbons – pale lilac – nervously.
“Yes,” Marnie replied, arching an eyebrow, “you’ve done something stupid.”
Gloria burst out laughing, burying her face into her hands. Nat startled horribly at that, and then settled in to sulk properly, still giving Marnie terribly sullen looks.
“You get to be angry about this,” Gloria explained, once she was dressed in something less terribly distracting as lace and ribbons and frills , her back turned to Marnie as she busied herself making breakfast. Her sobble was back on her shoulders, too, curled up around the back of her neck and seemingly snoring away without a care. “I… I understand, if you’re angry about this.”
Marnie sat in the kitchen table, one leg folded over the other at the knee, and studied Gloria’s back while she contemplated telling her she’d already had breakfast before coming here. It’d probably derail the conversation, though, so she didn’t. That was a lesson she’d learned from Piers, but not one he had purposefully set out to teach her, like the importance of honesty and how to pick a lock. Acknowledge that she could do something, but she chose not to. She could make things worse, but she didn’t. She wasn’t powerless or helpless. Inaction was, sometimes, far more powerful than anything else.
So she hummed in reply, a noise of acknowledgement to the words, but refused to say anything else. She didn’t have to. Gloria was doing that thing she did, sometimes, when she fiddled with thoughts the same way she did her sleeves, where she talked and talked and the pauses for a reply were symbolic more than anything. Marnie reckoned she didn’t even realize she was doing it, what with her audience usually being Hop and Hop being incapable of not interjecting commentary every chance he got.
They were exhausting, the pair of them, loud and excitable and perpetually bright.
But she liked that Hop was kind and worked hard and always had something nice to say, about everyone he met. He reminded her of Raihan, more than his brother, that well-meaning disposition and those selective pockets of deep knowledge about very specific things.
Gloria she just straight up liked.
But then, she was friends with Hop and she was dating Gloria, so of course it was different.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Gloria pointed out, pulling out jars and stuff from her cabinets, because she was the sort of ridiculous that knew how to make pancakes from scratch. “And I know how that sounds,” she added, risking a look over her shoulder to look at Marnie, though it wasn’t long enough for Marnie to guess what her own face looked like, “but it’s not… it’s a big deal, yes, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t think.”
Marnie hummed again, as Gloria fell silent, clearly engrossed in the tedious process of measuring bits and pieces that she dumped into the mix. She considered pointing out box mix was perfectly acceptable and infinitely less hassle, but she divined the metaphor almost immediately: Gloria liked the hassle. They were dating, after all.
“It just be that way, sometimes,” Marnie said, at length, and watched Gloria fumble with an egg and drop it on the ground, where it smashed and made a mess.
“Shit,” Gloria said, blinking at it, and then laughed again, that manic edge to the sound that sat awkward and uncomfortable in Marnie’s gut when she heard it.
It occurred to her that Gloria sounded scared.
“You can do whatever you want, be whatever you want,” Marnie said, folding her arms and leaning back on the chair, and only after she’d done it she realized that was exactly the way her Ma used to sit in her office, when talking business with people. “Only, I wanted to know, if you’d decided to quit Team Yell after all.” She shrugged. “The grunts’ve missed you.”
Maybe, Marnie reckoned, she too was scared; that wasn’t what she’d come to say, but it was close enough.
“I love being part of Team Yell,” Gloria whispered, staring at Marnie in the eye, her own bright and green and lacking any gleams of anything not her.
Marnie held her stare and then, very purposefully, shrugged.
“Suppose,” Gloria said, standing by the window, face turned in profile so it was framed by the bright lights outside, “that you had to choose, between… between Piers and Spikemuth, and—”
“I wouldn’t,” Marnie said, like it was normal and mundane for her girlfriend to suddenly be standing there, in her room, out of nowhere.
Granted, she’d given Gloria’s keys to the house – and she would, of course, give her keys to the Gym, once Gloria came back to Spikemuth again, which Marnie supposed was now – but she hadn’t exactly… well, expected her to show up like this. This was new. Not entirely unwelcome, either. Just. New.
“But—” Gloria began, and then trailed off, turning away from the window to stare at Marnie, and her eyes glowed in the dark, irises red, like a liepard, only more.
“I wouldn’t,” Marnie repeated, shifting around so she was sitting up properly, covers pulled up to her lap and her t-shirt – a limited edition print for Piers’ debut tour she’d bought two whole sizes larger than strictly necessary, purely for the pleasure of sleeping in it – crumpled with sleep. She blinked at Gloria and couldn’t help but offer an almost pitying look. “I’d find whoever thought they could make me choose, and make them regret that assumption.”
It wasn’t even a threat, just a plain statement of fact. It hung heavy in the room, and then melted away, when Gloria laughed – she always laughed, even when she probably shouldn’t – and rubbed her face with her hands. Her sobble made a bubbling noise of protest, and then shifted to find a comfortable spot. Gloria’s sobble was much like Marnie’s own morpeko: willful and lazy and utterly devastating in a fight, provided it could actually be bothered to fight.
“I should… I should go,” Gloria said, as if only realized the time – 2:56 AM, flashed the clock on Marnie’s bedside table – and the whole surreal air of the interaction.
Marnie stared at her and the fact she was pretty much not leaving, rooted on the spot, and reached a somewhat obvious but nonetheless important conclusion. Then she immediately dismissed it as something not worth discussing at three in the morning, and purposefully scooted away from the edge of the bed. Gloria’s shoulders slumped almost at the same time Marnie threw the covers away, clearly inviting her in. Then it was just a matter of a shuffle and a bit of turning to find the right spot, so that sobble was comfortable and Gloria’s chin was not digging anywhere soft, and then it was fine.
It was fine.
Marnie was late for the first time since she inherited, the next morning, but she still couldn’t bring herself to care.