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Strength

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After May beats Steven, he disappears. Her victory, her becoming the Champion is a hollow one when all she wants is to see him again.

She had thought that maybe she could ask him to train with her, accompany him as he traveled all over the country, maybe, maybe…

There were many things she thought could have happened, but not this horrible reality of not knowing where he is.

He always kept on popping up at the worst of times, always ready to give some advice, to lend his strength to any crisis, to just be there during her journey. She had grown used to his assertiveness, his confidence as he talked to her, how he respected her skills even though she was young, much younger than him.

She had already fallen before she knew it.

Now, though, he was gone.

***

Her skills don’t diminish, though her drive to battle is long gone. Each of the Elite Four, whom she’d gotten to know after working with them in Evergrande City, had tried in their own way to probe her feelings, though it was Glacia who had finally confronted her after she had almost, almost lost to her.

“May, when I fought you first, I thought you were smarter than this,” Glacia says wryly, though she could see the sympathy in her eyes.

“I don’t understand what you mean, Glacia.”

“Everyone who challenges Steven Stone in an official or unofficial battle, every young trainer and maybe some of the older ones fall in love or become fascinated with him, even when he leaves. And he always does, and the rest of us have to pick up the pieces.”

“But-“

“Of course he doesn't do it on purpose; it’s just that he is oblivious to the effect he has on people” she continues. “But there are many who see him once and continue to look for him but never see him again.”

She couldn’t speak, her throat dry and her eyes full of unshed tears and it is a surprise when Glacia places a hand on her shoulder.

“May,” said Glacia gently, “take a break. Go back to your hometown for a while. Like Steven did before, you don’t really have to stay here all the time, you know. Steven, like many of the champions even in other regions, used to run all over Hoenn; we’d hardly hear a word from him for months, you know. We’ll call you back when someone comes, though I’m sure that won’t be for a long time” Glacia says assuredly. “Rest and maybe-“

But she doesn’t say anything more.

***

She had thought herself special, deluded herself that maybe, maybe, she had been the first, the only. Had Steven also mentored other trainers, fought by their side like he had with her? (She could feel her irrationality and hated herself for it. Of course he was the Champion, it was probably a rule for those with the role to take interest in and inspire young trainers to do better. There had been something in the guidebook about that.) Had any of them been girls like her?

Jealousy was such an ugly emotion, as ugly as despair.

“May, you’re moping” said her mother, two days after she had inexplicably turned up at home and proceeded to lock herself in the room,  “Go out and explore with Brendan! It doesn’t look good for the new Champion of the Hoenn League to be moping around in your room, phew, you should take a bath too!”

Everything fell on deaf ears, though she wondered how her mother knew she had been moping.

She never knew growing up would be so painful.

***

She moves on, slowly and painfully.

It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, but there are days when May doesn’t want to go out of bed.

It is her Pokemon, they who knew her best that remind her to live, to try to not forget. They had seen him too like she did, had seen their master fall, though she hesitates to use that word. Was it so painful because it was love?

Would it always be so painful?

She throws away all the romance novels in her room, especially those that told one to fight for one’s love, all the ones with the happy endings, even though they don’t stop her dreams of him, with him.

There was no chance even to fight for them because he took that choice away from her when he disappeared.

***

Life moved on, life moves on and May trains and travels to get better, but also to try and move on. It helps to have Wally and Brendan, who’re some of the few people who don’t treat her differently just because she’s become the Champion (taken it away from Steven, causing him to disappear, she thinks ruefully), remind her that there is still so much to do, so much to improve, that there is more than battling to Pokemon, there are more trainers than Steven in Hoenn. She owes them a lot, even though she cannot say why she’s changed, why her heart seems to have been closed off, but she thinks they understand, maybe too well by the worried looks they give her when they think she’s not looking.

She finds her smile rusty, but she uses it more easily now, three months after. She takes all comers, though she defeats them easily, but she tries her best to encourage them, much like she had learned, much like she is sure she should forget.

But still, as she travels, she listens for any news about a silver-haired man wearing black and purple.

***

It is Wally who mentions something, two months later, when they meet up at a restaurant in Verdanturf Town for lunch.

“You know, May, you might get another challenger soon, someone from Sinnoh.”

“I’ve never met anyone from Sinnoh,” she says contemplatively. “That’s really far away.”

“Neither had I before him,” Wally says cheerfully, “I was exploring a cave near Fallabor Town and I thought the cave would never end, you see, but then at the end, there was a man who was really powerful, like you May. But his Pokemon were really rare, some were from fossils, and one was…” He is thoughtful as he tries to remember.

“A Metagross, I think those are really, really rare. I was demolished,” he said ruefully. “I wonder if there are many trainers in Sinnoh as strong as him.”

It hurts to breathe, and the next thing she knows is that Wally has pulled out an inhaler and is attempting to put it in her mouth.

She tries to placate his worries, but she knows where she has to go.

***

Wally had not exactly told her about how hard it was to explore the cave, she said. It takes a while, especially when there are trainers who challenge her every once in a while.

She finds a waterfall, and on a whim, she asks for help from her Pokemon to climb it.

She finds him then, at the top of the waterfall, his Metagross at his side.

She can’t speak, even though she had planned, had dreamed of this moment for so long.

Why did you leave, why did you leave me, why didn’t you say goodbye, why couldn’t you let me-

And he turns, and she doesn’t realize she is on her knees until a hand takes hers.

“May,” he says hoarsely, like he hasn’t used his voice for a long while.

She grits her teeth in frustration because all she wants to do is run into his arms when she doesn’t know if they’ll even open for her.

“Steven, let’s battle.”

***

She beats him soundly, though seeing his Metagross makes her hesitate for a second before she lets her Pokemon deliver its move.

He ruefully smiles at her as he recalls his fallen Pokemon afterwards. “You’re much stronger than before, May, but I expected that.”

She guesses she cannot keep the bitterness out of her voice by observing the way his eyes widened at her tone, “Of course, I am the Champion.”

“May,” he says softly, “I-"

“I wouldn’t have challenged you if I had known you’d disappear” she gets out before there are tears, angry frustrated tears and she rubs them onto her sleeve angrily.

He takes away her arm gently and brushes the rest away with a handkerchief; she wonders at the gentle action but angrily brushes his arm away, turning away from him even though her heart, her body is heavy.

“And now I guess you’ll disappear again, and I’ll not hear from you-“

“May, stop.”

“Don’t tell me to stop,” she says, and she realizes that she’s ranting, for the old her, the one when she was still pining, pining, and hoping for a fairytale ending with him even after he left, would have never spoken to him, or anyone else really, like this. “If I hadn’t even heard from Wally that he had battled a trainer with a Metagross here-“

“Is that how?” He is thoughtful, his voice soothingly calm. “Wally… the boy I battled a few days ago. I didn’t know he knew you, but then he did remind me of you, your determination and your bond with your Pokemon.”

She turns away, a horrible feeling in her stomach, “See, there you go again, it’s like what Glacia said! You just run around and not care about the people you meet, those who are inspired by you, miss you,” Love you, she thinks, but she doesn’t let that get out of her mouth. She already sounds incoherent enough without that added to the mix.

Steven exhales slowly. “I… I talked to Glacia. May, I do like battling. But my real passion is finding rare stones, like my father. It just happened, that as I roamed the region being able to fulfill my passion, I found a lot of trainers who wanted to battle me, some knowing and others not knowing who I am. But the other great part of being a Champion was being able to see so many trainers so earnest and wanting to become better. Of course I had met a lot of trainers, those who had challenged me as a Champion or as an unknown trainer who was scouring Hoenn for rare stones. But you were, you are special,” he said. “You are, May. Whenever I looked at you, I couldn’t look away.” He sighs, “Even now I still can’t.”

“But you left,” she finally gets out, her heart traitorously beating fast, faster. “Clearly I wasn’t good enough for you,” she says, even though she wishes she can take it back the moment she says it. It reveals too much.

“I… I was confused, May.”

“Confused?”

He wrung his hands, something she had never seen him do before. “I saw you when you had just started your journey, May, then I saw you grow with your Pokemon, I fought alongside you, I…” He stopped, his head bowed slightly. “To see you then, to lose to you who were shining so brightly, I couldn’t think straight, May.” He reaches out to touch her hair, curling a lock with a finger. “I had wanted to battle you at my best and I did, but it was painful to lose, to know that perhaps, perhaps you-“

He pulls her into his arms, her gasp muffled by his broad chest. “You wouldn’t respect me anymore. That you wouldn’t need me anymore. That’s why I went to Sinnoh after, I wanted to find more stones and yes, to try and forget.”

“Of course I still respect you, I always will” she says softly, only sadness left in her voice now. “How couldn’t I? You taught me so much, supported me so much, when most everyone just expected me to do well or fail, depending on who it was. You were amazing; I didn’t know why such a respected trainer wanted to help me so much, supported me so much.”

“May, any trainer worth his salt would support you in any way” he says gruffly now, “But there was something more, that was why I couldn’t, why I didn’t show myself to you after my loss."

She is afraid to ask, her long buried hopes and her cynicism borne of despair sealing her vocal cords, but she knows he understands because his eyes soften.

“I may be older, May, but this is the first time I’ve-“ He buries his head in her shoulder, tightening his hold on her. “I care about you, May” he says roughly, “very much.” A pause, then “I think the Elite Four knew, they teased me then as to why I had come back in time for you to challenge them, us, me. It’s not like I hadn’t mentioned you to them before, when I was forced to meet with them, that I had found someone who likely would surprise us all. But I couldn’t say anything,” he says lowly, “because you are much younger, and you probably had someone else on your mind.”

“I don’t,” she says softly. “You assumed?”

“How could I not, when there was that handsome boy who came to congratulate you after you won?”

She laughs now, relief in her voice. “Brendan? He’s just a friend.”

“Oh,” he says softly.

She realizes he hasn’t let her go.

She hopes he doesn’t, even though he knows he will eventually.

***

“Do you want to come to Johto with me?”

It is so easy to say yes, but she can’t. Even if she wants to, wants to not let him go all over again she has a duty, and while it is hers she will do it the best she can.

“I can’t.”

He smiles gently. “That’s the right answer, May.”

She feels him brush away a tear from her eye, then there is the softest brush of lips to her hair. “When we are both a little older,” he says, “I hope you will give me another answer, one to the question I most want to ask. But I want to become stronger, I want to follow some more of my dreams first; I want us both to grow together, even when we’re apart.”

She feels him bury his face in her shoulder one more time. “I want to add to your strength in my own way, even if it means letting you go again.”

***

It doesn't take more than a day before she gets up the courage to visit his house.

He leaves a letter and a Pokeball and she doesn’t know how many times she rereads it until the words blur and tears dot the paper.

After a while, she brushes her tears away and releases the Pokemon from its Pokeball. Like Steven, she thinks instantly, with its guarding of emotions behind a confident shell. Beldum, Beldum, and she remembers that moment when Steven first showed her his Metagross, his pride and joy, his strength.

Maybe this was what he meant.

She will train it and she’ll become so much better because this time he’s added to her strength, given her something so intrinsically tied to himself.

***

She hears of his exploits in Johto, even though he doesn’t call. Brendan says the signal is so bad there, that the best way probably was to try and get him to visit Professor Elm in Johto, since at least the communication lines between his father and Professor Elm was stable.

She smiles at him and shakes her head.

If she saw him again, she might cry, and he wouldn’t want to see that.

Besides, he had promised this time and she was also fulfilling her silent one to him, that she’d grow much stronger, even while they were apart.

She was stronger, after all, and she had learned to wait, to work for her happy ending. What that had was still changing, because there were so many things to learn about Pokemon, about the Pokemon World but she hoped that Steven would be part of hers.

***

Brendan calls to say hi one day, a smile on his face when she tells him that her Metang has evolved into a Metagross.

“May, someone called the lab today, asking if I could tell you something.”

“Is it Champion stuff again? Sorry to trouble you all this time, Brendan; I wonder why they keep on calling you when I think I’ve told everyone to direct inquiries here, to Evergrande City.”

“No, it’s no problem, we’re used to it. I think it’s because our town is so small that only our lab’s number is listed, not to mention the press keeps trumpeting our small town as your hometown, even though it’s really in Johto. But it isn’t Champion stuff.”

Puzzled, she asks what it was.

“It was a message from someone who wishes to remind you that he would climb a waterfall for rare rocks.”

She grips her PokeNav. “Brendan-“

“Go, May” he says gently. “Be happy.”

***

When she has climbed the falls, he is there with his Metagross and Aggron out. Metagross notices her first and glides over to Steven who was looking intently at a stone he had in his hand, though from her distance May couldn’t discern which it was.

It nudges him, he turns, and when he sees her, he drops the stone and stares.

She doesn’t want to look away again.

His first words are to ask her not to, not anymore.