Chapter 1: Piers and Raihan: You know that shit will kill you right?
“You’ve been smoking more lately,” Raihan points out, sitting on the edge of the yard, baby trapinch in his lap.
It’s the first hatchling of the year, and Raihan desperately hopes that means it’s a good omen. After the destruction of Spikemuth last year, and all the new, interesting ways people kept finding to challenge his faith in humanity, he needed this year to be good. He felt guilty, because really, Piers needed a good year more than him, but he balanced it out thinking they all needed a good year. It would be nice if things didn’t spiral out of control for once.
“Maybe,” Piers says, looking at the cigarette in his hand. “It’s a bad habit.”
“I’d gathered,” Raihan replies, voice dry, and shifts his hand so the trapinch can chew on his fingers, not hard enough to hurt, but more a… comfort gesture. It reminds him of flygon, when he was that small. “Considering how much you yell at me about it.”
Raihan doesn’t even really like smoking, he does it mostly to piss Piers off. Besides, his image would suffer for it, if he made a habit out of it. He’s still somewhat awkward, blatantly posting his face in social media, but it’s all part of the plan.
Rose can’t blacklist him, if he’s made himself a popular icon on his own terms.
That’s the theory, anyway. He needs to build up a big enough base, before he can test it by challenging the Chairman in anyway. Piers would be mad about it, if he knew what Raihan’s planning, but what he doesn’t know, won’t hurt him. Raihan has baby dragons on his side, the internet will be his plaything yet.
“Do as I say,” Piers singsongs, wry smile tugging his lips, “not as I do.”
“Does that shit even work on Marnie?” Raihan wonders, not bothering to hide the dubious look he’s giving his friend.
“You assume anything works on Marnie,” he says, and blows out a series of rings high above their head.
More often than not, Piers is like that, these days: dry and wry and a little bit resigned. Raihan worries and doesn’t know what to do with it. After all that’s happened, Piers is allowed to be sad and tired and resigned. He’s allowed to miss his Ma and feel overwhelmed by everything piling up high on his shoulders. He’s allowed to feel bad, but Raihan wishes he’d feel better. Raihan wishes he knew how to make him feel better, but he doesn’t. So he just sits with him, instead, when he drops by over the weekend, and he doesn’t ask who’s looking after Marnie when he does, and they sit at the edge of the yard and chat about nothing, staring at the looming towers of Hammerlocke right above them.
“You work on Marnie,” Raihan says, voice soft, and reaches a hand to hold one of Piers’. He squeezes it when Piers gives him a dubious look. “You do! She loves you.”
“I’m all she has,” Piers bites out, unconvinced, but he doesn’t pull away.
He’s prickly, like that. Reminds Raihan of ferrothorn, which might just mean Raihan likes naturally prickly things, with sharp edges and pointy bits that hurt if you don’t know how to handle them properly. He thinks he does know, though, how to handle Piers. He’s got practice.
“Just because you’re all she has doesn’t mean you’re not all she needs,” Raihan points out, and tugs his hand, pulling him up against his side. “She’s happy, y’know? With you. She’s happy and smart as all hell, and you’re doing alright.” And then, a whisper of inspiration. Or maybe intuition. It reminds Raihan of some of his siblings, the ones that were hurt, before they found their way to Mrs. Fairweather. The ones that cry and scream and kick and try so hard to lash out and hurt others the same way they were hurt. “She doesn’t love you because she has to. She just does.”
Piers seems startled by that, and then he laughs, closing his eyes.
“Shut the fuck up, Raihan,” he says, rubbing a hand on his face.
“Why?” Raihan teases, nudging him, until he’s got an arm wrapped around his shoulders. “’cause I’m right?”
His hair’s getting longer, Raihan notes, thick ropes twisted in themselves. It reminds him of Lydia and that hurts, and then he wonders what Piers feels like, looking in the mirror every day and seeing more and more of her stare back at him when he does. Raihan thinks he’s got his mom’s eyes and his dad’s jawline, but the memories are so foggy now, so distant, they don’t really hurt to think about. It’s more a curiosity than an open sore.
He doesn’t know when Piers will stop hurting, about his Ma and his town and everything else, and he doesn’t think it’s fair to even ask.
It’s shit, and it’s the kind of shit Raihan hates dealing with, because he doesn’t know how to fix it. He doesn’t know what to do. He might be doing something right, considering how often Piers drops by – and how their roles have reversed, now – but for all he knows he might be making it worse.
“Primarily,” Piers snorts, before he takes one last drag of his cigarette, a whole lungful of it, and then throws the still lit butt into a patch of dirt in the yard where no grass has grown back after turtonator burned it down last month. “I know it’s bad for me, that’s half the appeal.”
“What’s the other half?”
“I’ll tell you when you grow up.”
“The hell is that supposed to mean?”
Piers closes his eyes, basking in the hug.
“When you know, you’ll know.”
But he doesn’t light up another cigarette, and he looks game to take a nap right where he is, so Raihan decides not to argue. He can always argue more, he supposes. Later.
They’ve earned this much, at least.
Chapter 2: Raihan and Marnie (and Piers), Family
“You can’t tell him!” Marnie said, staring into the camera, expression solemn. “Not even a hint!”
Raihan laughed and waved his hands placatingly, and hopefully rotom was a good enough angle that Marnie could see it.
“Of course I won’t tell him, baby girl,” he said, “he thinks we’re going out to watch the new ranger adventures movie.”
Marnie narrowed her eyes.
“Well,” she said, “we are.”
Raihan grinned again.
“I mean, yeah, but he thinks that’s all we’re going to do,” he corrected, and then winked at the camera. “And he thinks we’re gonna do that in Hammerlocke, too. Trust me, I’ve got you sorted.”
“Tomorrow at ten!” Marnie insisted, blue eyes sharp. “Don’t be late!”
“Promise I won’t be,” Raihan replied, “now off to bed with you, it’s late.”
Marnie rolled her eyes and offered a very snarky goodnight before hanging up. Raihan shook his head and beckoned his rotom down so he could finish texting Piers reassurances that no, he was not at all bothered by Marnie’s insistence that he had to be the one to take her to watch the latest installment of her favorite movie series. And no, it didn’t mean she didn’t love him anymore, though that joke always got him a bit of shit-talking for his trouble, even though he knew damn well Piers appreciated someone voicing out his dumb concerns so he could hear how dumb they were. He texted Raihan a scrupulous list of things to remember to do (and not to do) while Marnie was in his care, because he was an anxious ball of overprotective urges sometimes, but Raihan didn’t tell him that he knew already – Piers did, after all, sent him the exact same list of instructions every single time he ended up looking after Marnie, because of course he did.
In the morning, at ten on the dot, Raihan picked up Marnie and waved off Piers before walking her right out of Spikemuth and onto the waiting corviknight taxi – because of course Raihan was not going to fly Piers’ ten year old sister on the back of a pokemon, mostly because he liked living – and while they were flown over to Wyndon, he texted Piers that unfortunately their show had been cancelled so Raihan was going to fly Marnie off to Wyndon so she could watch her movie there.
Because Raihan would, in fact, be perfectly happy to do that kind of thing for the sake of not making Piers’ baby sister cry, Piers texted him back another small tirade to make sure she was fine, a small plea to not spoil her rotten – ha! – and a small concession to maybe let them get home a bit later than anticipated, on account of the flight there.
All according to plan.
Really, it wasn’t even his plan. The mastermind was sitting across from him inside the taxi’s cabin, peering out the glass as they flew over the snowed in peaks. Marnie had wanted to take the train, because the route was more scenic, but Raihan had talked her out of it, if nothing else because the thought of riding a crowded train with her under his care got him just a little bit nervous. She was a very willful child – she reminded him, with that soft, gentle pain that didn’t really hurt, of her Ma – and Raihan wouldn’t put it past her to slip away if something caught her eye. Spikemuth’s little princess was free to come and go anywhere she wanted, after all, and she was used to her whims and wants being met with smiles and agreement no matter what. Sure, Raihan and Piers were both suckers incapable of saying no to her, but she was also very literally Spikemuth’s little princess. The people in Spikemuth looked at her and her brother with feral, vicious loyalty and that unique brand of abrasive affection that only dark-type specialists knew how to balance.
Marnie was not a princess in Hammerlocke – she was very close to being one, admittedly, so long as Raihan was there to gesture politely at shopkeepers and tourists and anyone who might be considering not bending to her will, while keeping himself sufficiently out of sight for her to notice – but she would definitely not be a princess in Wyndon.
Actually, the more he thought about the fact he was bringing Piers’ baby sister into Wyndon, the more he started to worry it’d be a bad idea. After all, Wyndon was very much Rose’s town.
And, at least to Raihan, it wasn’t a secret how Rose felt about Piers, Spikemuth and anything associated with them.
“You’re doing the thing,” Marnie said, wrinkling her nose at him.
“The thing?” Raihan asked, and then blinked as he realized she was looking intently at him. He smiled sweetly. “What thing, baby girl?”
“The dumb thinking thing,” she said, and then made sure he was watching, before she rolled her eyes in the same overdone, melodramatic way her brother did. “It’s okay, Han.” She pulled her jacket open enough to show him the duskball placed in the inside pocket. “I brought morpeko and everything.”
“Well, you know,” he said, reaching out his hands to bounce hers playfully, “I’m a little nervous! Wyndon is a big city.” He winked. “And you know I get scared sometimes.”
“You’re a crybaby,” Marnie said, nodding with the air of someone imparting a well-known truth, “it’s okay. I’m here.”
“Thank you,” Raihan sighed, head tilted slightly to the side. “Please be sure to take care of me.”
“Sure,” Marnie replied, nodding to herself. “I’ll stay close, always.”
“You’re a diamond, baby girl,” Raihan laughed, pleased as anything. “So how’s school?”
Marnie made a very loud, very put-upon noise and the rest of the ride was spent with Raihan being educated in the rather complicated web of gossip and drama that dominated Marnie’s class and sprawled three whole grades down, even. It was riveting stuff, Raihan had to admit, it even rivalled the complexities of his own Gym Trainer’s love dodecahedron that he’d been very carefully not getting involved into, mostly because he liked living.
When they landed, Marnie immediately offered a hand and then clutched Raihan’s in her own with singular determination. Together, they made their way along the unnaturally grid-like streets – Hammerlocke’s streets were a sprawling awkward mess that had organically grown out from the main Keep itself, while Spikemuth had been rebuilt with the explicit purpose of not allowing straight lines at all it seemed – until they found the small music boutique.
It was the sort of fancy place that made Raihan wonder exactly how Marnie had tracked them down in the first place, but then he supposed he probably didn’t want to know. It probably involved an uncomfortable number of people dropping everything to do whatever she wanted. And well. There he was, just another cog in the neat machinery that existed to make Spikemuth’s little princess crack one of those rarely seen smiles of hers.
Because the place was the posh kind of fancy, Raihan resisted the urge to whistle when they brought out Marnie’s order.
“Do you think he’s gonna like it?” Marnie asked, and the illusion broke, because she sounded exactly as small and young as she was, looking up hopefully at Raihan.
Raihan studied the guitar in its posh, fancy case and leaned in to press a kiss to the crown of her head.
“He’s gonna love it, baby girl.”
Because really, of course he was, Raihan was going to murder him if he wasn’t, matter of fact.
“Good,” Marnie said, not smiling, but rather nodding with determination.
Even clerks of fancy stores melted at the sight, apparently. Raihan was too busy dying inside to really protest the fact he was now going to spend all day babysitting not only Piers’ sister, but Piers’ sister’s really expensive birthday gift for Piers. Marnie broke down giggling three separate times during the movie, and that was enough for Raihan to even stop thinking about complaining.
Such was the life under Marnie’s tyranny.
Chapter 3: Piers & Morgana (& Grimsley)
“Hey,” Piers says, limbs loose and hanging weightless at each side of his body, his smile tired and his eyes a little wet.
Morgana jolts in place, at the sound of his voice, caught in that frozen stare that’s visibly trying to parse what’s happening. There’s always a moment of indecision and doubt, when a pokemon’s traded or given away, an uncertainty about their place with their new partner and sometimes mixed feelings about leaving their old one.
Morgana takes a moment, careful and thoughtful like everything else she does, and then the roar echoes loud and delighted, before she throws herself at Piers, who immediately buckles under the weight and ends up lying on the ground, chuckling low in the back of his throat.
“Oh, I see how it is,” his old man says, watching the exchange from the sidelines, sitting on the small wooden steps leading up to the police station that would look very nondescript if it weren’t located in the particular route it was. “Him you hug, me you nearly tear an arm off.”
“She didn’t nearly tear your arm off,” Piers says, scratching roughly into the base of the spikes behind her head and letting her settle in place, basically blanketing him with her body.
His dad, because he’s his dad, rolls his eyes with a flourish and dramatically shoves the left sleeve of his robe up to the shoulder, so Piers can see the vicious scars along his arm, almost stretching from shoulder to elbow. They look old, but distinct enough to let Piers know the wound they originated from was not, in fact, a laughing matter.
“Taking an enraged tyranitar’s crunch head on,” he says, shrugging so the sleeve falls down in place, as usual, “not my brightest moment.”
Piers sighs and then smirks.
“I don’t know,” he says, careful to not look at him in the eye, “I still think I have the crown there, as your least brightest moment.”
His dad doesn’t laugh, doesn’t even smile.
He looks sad, instead. Melancholic. Piers hates his dumb robe and the stupid flecks of white he’s let grow into his hair, and the fact he gave him keys to the police station, all the way back when they chucked Rose into a hole, and invited him to visit, to… reconnect. He hates the fact he’s kept that key burning a hole in his pockets since then, writhing in place and feeling like sticking around and helping Marnie get her bearings as new Gym Leader was procrastination and not something he did out of love. He just… he hates it and him and everything he feels about it, and above all the fact his dad outright refuses to give him a reason so Piers won’t have to feel like shit all the time.
“The last time you were here,” his dad says, tone wry, “you packed your bags and went right back home because your best friend posted a selfie with a shovel and you decided that meant he was being stupid and needed you to keep him from it.”
Which is… true, sure, but his dad doesn’t know Raihan, doesn’t know the lengths of stupidity he’s capable of, as far as Leon’s concerned. Sure, Piers had tidied up all his loose ends and decided to take up the invitation and come see his dad, fully prepared for take as long as necessary to clear the air and just. Make himself stop feeling guilty over the dumb key forever present in his pocket, like a stupid amulet or something. But then of course, Raihan and his shovel and the stupid pond he’d decided to dig because he’s hopeless and a moron and what was Piers supposed to do but go home and mock him for it? The fact Leon and Raihan had moved in together afterwards was progress that Piers could claim no credit for but between dealing with his dad and his dumb boyfriend and his dumb boyfriend’s knack to dump all his responsibilities on Piers because it’s not that different from Gym Leader work, really, the whole Kahuna business and being home, drinking beer and spectating Raihan’s disaster of a love life, well. There’s no contest, really, Piers knows which one he’ll take up any time.
“If I ask why you’d ever think I or her or both of us wouldn’t be proud of you, would you tell me?”
Piers hums and then smiles against better judgment, when Morgana nuzzles his face, pressing just enough for him to realize he’s pinned in place and not going anywhere unless he recalls her into her duskball. It feels like the kind of underhanded setup he should have expected, but for all he hates this – and him and himself and everything – he’s just. He’s tired. He’s not a child anymore, throwing a tantrum and hiding away in the caves beneath the stadium just so he wouldn’t have to see his dad. He’s not the brat that hid in Raihan’s living room every time his dad visited under the excuse of letting Marnie spend some time with the old man in her own terms.
“Ma was a business sharpedo who built up the hoard that I nearly depleted after the accident, trying to keep the town afloat, and one of the strongest Gym Leaders in Galar history, and the one person on record to not only have said no to Rose, loudly and ferally and every bit as roughly as she damn pleased.” Piers tilts his head back, staring at his dad. “You’re… well. You. You don’t need me sucking up telling you who you are.” It’s supposed to make the old man laugh, but he doesn’t, staring down at him intent and focused, like this matters. Like any of this matters. “If I ever learned anything from you, dad, it was to not take chances on losing odds: there’s no way I live up to those expectations, so I rather not waste time trying.”
“Your mother was a selfish, vicious, reckless asshole,” his dad says, unrepentant. “I am a selfish, vicious, reckless asshole. Peas in a pod, her and I, you could say that’s why we loved each other quite so.” He laughs wryly, tilting his head sharply to the police station, and the small army of alolan meowths in various states of napping all over it. “We had that in common, in fact, that we have a type and that type is, I must insist, selfish, vicious, reckless asshole.” His dad tilted his head sideways. “You somehow managed to be neither of those things of your own volition. You took all that’s good in her and in me, scarce as it is, and made it yours. Why would we not be proud of you?”
Piers says nothing, looking away. He wraps his arms around Morgana’s neck and basks instead in the content rumble echoing from her chest.
“You should ask me for a rematch,” Piers says, after a long, long while, just as his dad stands up and begins heading back inside.
He gently pushes Morgana off until he can sit down, though she immediately curls around until her head is plopped right on his lap and he’s back to scratching the back of her spines.
“Oh?” His dad tilts his head, looking at him over his shoulder. “And what would I get, if I win?”
Piers makes a conscious choice to not look at him in the eye as he smiles.
“Nothing,” he says, shrugging. “But you’ll tell me how you met Ma, if you lose.”
His dad laughs, and for the first time Piers allows himself to admit it’s a very musical sound, not necessarily meanspirited and mocking by default.
“Oh very well,” he says, duskball already in hand. “But I shan’t go easy on you.”
Piers doesn’t point out he never has, really, in the spirit of making amends.
Chapter 4: Dracovish's POV on Leon and battling
When they sleep, they dream of their past lives, plural, when they were two rather than one.
When they sleep, they dream of the depths, back when the sea was so new the water was clear almost all the way to the bottom.
When they sleep, they dream of the vast plains where grass first grew, covered in flowers that no longer exist, and remember the feeling of dirt digging into their toes as they first learned to run.
It’s all gone, when they wake up, and they are now and not then, and them but not them.
The world is scary and confusing and new, but it’s okay because He’s there, always. The world used to hurt and He made it stop. He’s kind and gentle and firm, the kind of guidance they can rely on, that makes the world make sense. He gave them a name and found the place where scritches felt best. He lets them explore and figure out how to be themselves and doesn’t get mad when they can’t get it right, the first time. Or the second, or the third.
For him, they want to be strong.
“Are you sure?” He asks, the first time they nudge him about it, nudging a shoulder with their head, and interrupting a training session.
He has others, of course, who follow him. They’ve learned to not fear them, not matter how strong they are, because they’ve learned that it was him that made them strong in the first place. They can’t help but be jealous of that, to want that for themselves.
“You’ll get hurt,” He explains, running his fingers along the edge of their gills, golden eyes serious. “You can’t help but get hurt, when you battle. I promised you wouldn’t hurt anymore.”
They shake themselves, shifting their weight from one foot to the other. They’ve grown, since He found them. They’ve gotten stronger already, they feel it in their insides, along the thread that connects them: they’re strong, now, but they could be stronger. They look at him intently, willing him to understand. No one else but him would understand, they’re sure.
“Alright,” He says, thinning his lips before nodding to the field. “Show me what you can do,” he adds, and then gestures to one of the others to join them. “Haxorus, you’re up.”
For a moment, they hesitate. Haxorus is proud and vicious and strong, and she bullies them, sometimes, often enough it’s hard for them to say if she’s playing or not. Then the iron tail connects, in the space of one breath and the next, hard against their side, and they stumble as the impact thunders all across their body. If they were any smaller, they would have been sent flying. If they were any weaker, that would be enough to make them stop.
They’re not, so they retaliate in kind, not with their tail but with their head, a brutal swing with enough force to make her cry out in surprise, and bounce back, putting distance. She shakes her head at them, threatening the sharp edge of her tusks, but a fire burns deep inside, building up in the back of their throat, and as she lounges at them, they let it out, dragon breath spilling out their maw. It’s not enough to take her out, but it’s enough to make her change her stance, claws digging into the ground as she braces for her outrage, faint red glow curling all around her as her jaws open and her breath becomes steam. They’ve seen that before, they’ve seen how few things remain standing after that.
They brace for it anyway, toes digging into the ground.
“Haxorus,” He says, firm voice cutting through the tension, “that’s enough.”
The way she’s looking at them, furious and ready to tear and rend them to nothing, they almost expect her to attack anyway. But then the moment passes and the glow disperses, and she turns away without a second look their way, ambling her way back to him, for pettings and scratches and being told she is good and strong. They stand there, waiting, until He offers a hand too, and then they go, eager for fingers to find that magical place around their neck, that makes the entire world fade away when He scratches the scales there.
“There’s no one in the world like you,” He says, as he’s said it before, and it sounds almost like a promise, sometimes, though they’re not quite sure of what. “So I guess it’s going to be an adventure, huh? Finding out what you can do?”
Their best, they promise, blowing air into the nape of his neck, right behind his ear, the way that makes him squeak a laugh every time.
Nothing less will do.
Chapter 5: Charizard on Raihan and Leon's relationship
Charizard doesn’t like people, in general.
Well, that’s not strictly true. She likes kids alright, they’re small and often silly and she can see they’re at least trying their best. Plus, they make Leon smile, so they’re alright. Teenagers are a bit more complicated, because they still make Leon smile, which should be enough, but they’re also often big enough to be brave and feel like they can touch and that gets tiring really quickly.
There’s so very few adults she’s met that she wouldn’t mind giving a good bite. A nice crunch and maybe then they’d learn to leave Leon alone. Adults don’t make Leon smile, they make him anxious and nervous and self-conscious. She hates that. She hates that he can’t really laugh when he wants to, or say what he means to, or even look at things the way he used to. But whenever she starts talking herself into it – really, realistically, all it would take would be one bite, just to get the message across – he’s looking at her over his shoulder, gently shaking his head, like he can hear her thoughts. He can’t, she’s the wrong type for that – she’s not jealous of the others, she’s the first and the best and they understand each other just fine as it is, it’s her the others should be jealous of, after all – but he can always tell.
It would be better to say that charizard is picky about the people she likes.
She likes Gloria, who definitely makes Leon smile for all he tries to pretend she doesn’t. She likes Carl, their cab driver, who still gives Leon sweets like he’s still ten, even though he’s not anymore. She likes all of Leon’s family, of course, who are kind and loving and always try to make Leon feel like he belongs.
But if she had to admit it, she’d say she likes Raihan best, out of all the people that orbit around Leon.
She even tried not to like him, in the beginning. Leon likes to fight for the sake of fighting, but charizard likes to fight for the sake of winning. Everyone they send out against her, she wants to knock out and show them who’s boss. She was the strongest pokemon around, for the longest time, and she’s not afraid to show it. She didn’t get so far by not enjoying what they do, after all! She remembers when she wasn’t that strong, that year they traveled around Galar getting badges and picking fights with Sonia and Sonia’s pokemon every step of the way. She’s so much stronger, now, that almost no one feels like a challenge. Gloria would be, but Leon will not fight her, she knows, almost like she can read his mind, but doesn’t need to. Raihan, though, he’ll fight over and over again, no matter how many times it ends the same way.
She ought to be bored of that, but she’s not. Because Raihan ought to be bitter about it, and he’s not.
He makes them work for it, not just her, not just Leon, all of them.
She would deign not to bite him, for that, for how fun it is to fight him and his team, for how much he makes Leon smile, like he’s small and carefree again, and the smile comes from deep within and spreads out all over his face and his eyes. Leon smiles like that so rarely now – charizard wants to bite every single adult that made him stop, crunch, until they leave him alone – that anyone who gives him that is someone she’d gladly tolerate.
But Raihan is likable, and loathe as she is to admit it, she’s grown fond of him, over the months they’ve spent living in the same space. His pokemon like him, of course, crowd at his feet for treats and pettings and being told sweet things, much the same way Leon’s other pokemon do to him – not her, though, she never begs for anything, from anyone, because she knows she’s the first and the best and the favorite, and only foolish idiots would not realize it. Raihan extends the same treatment to all of Leon’s pokemon, but not her. Her, he treats with deference, like he too can tell she is the first and best and favorite, that she’s special. Haxorus and dragapult fold easily, of course, because it was Raihan that raised them in the first place and one never truly forgets the one who raises them – she remembers, even now, being small and light and spending six months with her feet barely touching the ground, forever held in Leon’s arms – Mr. Rime and aegislash take longer, but they fold all the same. Rillaboom, seismitoad, rhyperior, they too end up taking kindly upon Raihan’s hands and Raihan’s words and Raihan’s treats. Even the ghosts, who are frightfully spiteful, she knows, who play tricks and get mean just for fun, even they settle in and never step out of line, whenever Raihan is around.
He makes Leon happy, they can tell, and he’s kind and nice and doesn’t hold grudges, even after all their fights.
She wouldn’t be swayed just by that, however, she doesn’t give her affection easily.
“I heard a rumor,” Raihan tells her one day – he talks a lot to her, coming to sit by where she’s busy sunbathing, carrying a plastic box, “that you really like dry berries.”
Charizard grunts at him, tail swishing slowly, as she watches him pull out a berry from the box. It’s not one she’s ever seen before, which piques her interest, because yes, she likes dry berries – Leon keeps a stack of chesto berries just for her, and she gets a bowl a day, as a snack, when they don’t have battles scheduled.
“They’re not always in season, but I reckoned you’d like to try them?”
She sniffs around his fingers, as he offers it, and ponders for a moment biting his hand almost just to see what he’ll do. It’s what most people deserve, shoving their fingers close to her mouth, after all, but this is Raihan and he makes Leon happy and he doesn’t insult her dignity, so she’s come to accept the fact she likes him after all.
So she doesn’t bite.
“There’s a good girl,” Raihan says, watching her sit up by his side, peering curiously at the box and then taking another berry – they’re good, really good – while giving him a suspicious enough look, almost daring him to take the box away. “You can take your time.”
She grunts at him, a hint of flame in her nostrils as she chews thoughtfully, not looking at him.
He’s kind and he’s nice and he makes Leon’s smile, but that’s not why she likes him. She’s smarter than that, after all. She’s the first and the best and the favorite, and there’s nothing Leon does not tell her. She likes Raihan because he understands her bond with her master, in a way most people don’t. She likes him because he’s smart enough to see through her and into Leon, all the bits and pieces she’s kept vigil of, over the years.
Maybe one day, she’ll even let him see those secrets.
Chapter 6: Raihan gets sick, while visiting Leon's family, Leon stays to look after him on New Year's
Raihan hates getting sick.
He hates lying in bed, stuck inside his bones, unable to really rest and take it easy because he can’t stop thinking about all the things he could be doing instead. He hates knowing staying in bed is the best he can do, for himself and those around him, sleep it off and be back on his feet in a day or two. But knowing something and knowing something are two very different things, and he always ends up telling himself he’s going to take this chance to finally put a decent dent into his reading list, to be productive in his leisure, and then he feels guilty because he can’t stop thinking about down time as off time. It’s worst this time around, though. Because he doesn’t actually have much to do, not the usual way – articles to write and budgets to review and performance checks and an endless parade of meetings – and he’s supposed to be spending time with Leon and his family.
He really, really likes Leon’s family.
He expected to, of course. Leon is his favorite person in the world, and the people who shaped him as a child and taught him all the important things – the really important things, Raihan knows, are all the things you learn before you’re ten, like be strong and don’t do harm – were always people he was going to like. The real question was if they were going to like him back. The tiny, terrified kernel of panic forever stuck in the back of his throat, that had sat there for months, because Leon’s mum definitely wanted him to visit, but never said anything about Leon’s dad or Leon’s Nan or even Leon’s brother. Raihan can muster straight up arrogance in front of a camera or in a stadium, growl and bare his teeth and make a dragon out of himself, at the drop of a hat. But that’s because he knows the people who follow him on social media purposefully put him and his borderline comical shenanigans there on purpose. They want to see him growl and bare his teeth and declare that The Great Raihan will see you now! when a new season of the Gym Challenge starts. It’s part of the fun. He’s built his image around the notion that he doesn’t care if people don’t want to root for him, they will because he’s the greatest. And at this point no one remembers that when he started that, really no one was rooting for him and there were swarms of online petitions to get him removed from Hammerlocke, countless interviews aiming to show him as a dumb kid in way over his head and even the occasional mob with signs protesting right outside the Gym.
Raihan is an expert at manufacturing confidence, but that’s when it’s a matter of survival. When it’s something as inconsequential as his job – Hammerlocke is not inconsequential, Hammerlocke is his life and his duty and his everything, but that was before Leon walked gracelessly into his life and became the most important thing, golden eyes and creepy non sequiturs and all. Raihan has made peace with this, ever since he had the revelation: they were in Kalos and Leon was crushing every trainer, Champion or Gym Leader alike, that stepped up to fight him, but then at the end of each fight, after the required handshake and good-natured laugh, Leon would turn to him, find him in the sidelines and smile. Like a sunflora chasing after the sun, hopeful and borderline shy. It hurt to breathe, when he did that. It was wonderful. And it made Raihan realize he was perfectly content to spend the rest of his life like this: sitting in the sidelines and watching Leon do whatever it was that he’d put in his mind to do, battling or caring for dragons or cooking things that left a lingering scent all over the house. That, Raihan had decided, was what happiness felt like, and he would endeavor to do anything necessary so it wouldn’t be taken away from him.
He’s made a good impression, so far. He thinks. Leon’s mum keeps him in her kitchen and is determined to get him to make something before the trip is done, utterly unwilling to accept the reality Raihan made peace with when was fifteen and staring at his own empty kitchen with sudden dread: he can’t cook worth shit. He’d tried to fry and egg once and the curtains had needed to be replaced in the aftermath. Takeout exists for a reason and that reason is to feed people like Raihan, who can barely be trusted to boil water and only occasionally. But Leon’s mum is nice and kind and so very convinced she can help that… well, he can’t say no.
Leon’s dad is another thing entirely. Suspicious, in a way Raihan hadn’t been expecting, but they’d seen eye to eye eventually. Sort of. Maybe. He’d been surprised when Raihan promised he’d choose Leon over everything else, but then he’d… settled into frowns and not throwing him into a sea of wooloo, never to be seen again. It’s fine. Probably. For all he knows, he’s thrilled to have him around. Probably not, but he can hope. Optimism has never hurt anyone.
Leon’s Nan is absolutely, bone-chillingly terrifying but that comes with the territory, he supposes, and he’d been as sturdily prepared for it as he could be, upon meeting her. It hadn’t been enough, obviously, but he’s made peace with the fact he tried his best.
But now all that good will might be wasted, because he’s sick and he’s made Leon miss the New Year’s celebration, because Leon is Leon and he refused to leave Raihan sick and alone in a strange house. And the house is strange, to him, full of trinkets and pictures and a million little stories implied in the details all around. It reminds him uncomfortably of the old house, his mum’s, and all the little bits and pieces of stories he’s never known, because the people who bought them and brought them home, who thought they should be preserved, they’re no longer there to share. There’s pictures and mementos and a whole history in the house, even if the house is not old – it’s as old as Leon, Leon’s dad explained to him, as he made him try to survive trial by wooloo the other day, built from scratch when they moved in and bought the farm, finished barely three days before Leon was born.
It’s a lovely house.
It’s a lovely family.
Leon looks odd in the doorway, light from the hallway turning the tips of his hair into a faint halo, but eyes bright, always. Almost glowing. He’s got striking eyes, Raihan has noticed, true golden, with a glimmer of something eerie when he forgets himself. Raihan always gets the feeling he’s supposed to be creeped out – sometimes, just sometimes, he is unnerved, at least, when Leon stares into the distance and starts making quips about morbid tidbits of Hammerlocke’s history that Raihan learned in dry books and articles, never with the viscerally vivid certainty coloring Leon’s voice – but most of the time he’s not. Not really. He hasn’t been truly creeped out since he stumbled on the realization Leon doesn’t show that, to anyone. That it’s a privilege, a sign of trust. Maybe he’s silly for thinking that, for not having a conversation about it, up front, but Leon is surprisingly skittish about what Raihan has come to term the ghost thing. He’s caught Leon looking at him, sometimes, bracing, waiting, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with that knowledge, besides swallow down misplaced anger and maybe go out on a run, sometimes. It’s not about him, anyway. It’s not his place to pry. He just tries his best to make sure Leon can relax like that, to be worthy of that trust.
Sometimes, Raihan realizes with something that almost reaches self-awareness, he treats Leon not unlike the dragons he’s responsible for, but the similarities are not entirely lost on him: Leon is fierce and proud and fundamentally benign unless outright provoked. A little weird, in places. Eccentric, maybe. But there isn’t a day Raihan doesn’t wake up tangled up in sheets that smell faintly of tea tree oil, that he doesn’t catch a stray long strand of purple hair on his pillow, and he doesn’t feel lucky.
“I made tea,” Leon says, walking into the room with a tray that includes a lot more than just a cup of tea: two cups of tea, in fact, and a glass of water, and a little plate with the soft, chewy butter cookies Leon’s mum made a few days back, that Raihan has become unbearably addicted to by now. “I mean, I made you nice tea and tea that’ll clear up your lungs, hopefully.” Leon explained, setting the tray on the nightstand and coming to sit on the edge of the bed, expression wry. “It tastes awful, sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Raihan croaks, hiss of a cough threatening somewhere in the back of his throat, and melts into the bed further when Leon presses a nice, cold hand against his face. “Really.”
“It’s not,” Leon insists, chuckling. “It really works, though. So that makes the awful worth it. Do you think you can try?”
Right before Leon pressed his fingers – cool, soothing fingers – against Raihan’s face, Raihan was almost anxiously awake, itching to move or do something. But now it’s like the bed is sucking him in, and the thought of sitting up enough to chug back the tea Leon made seems like an almost insurmountable task to get through. Still, he should try. He gets as far as half up when Leon presses the mug into his hands and the smell hits him. It’s… a strong smell, but Raihan can’t for the life of him even try to explain what it smells like, only that he’s suddenly not so sure about tasting it.
“What’s in this again?” He asks, blinking at the dark liquid, innocently tea-like for all it smells very much not.
“…you’re better off not knowing,” he says, wincing, “at least not until after you’ve seen it work. Best just to chug it in one go, if you can.”
Raihan looks up at him, waits until he’s sure Leon is looking at him, and then sighs dramatically.
“The things I do for love,” he whines mockingly, and grins when it makes Leon laugh.
Then he throws the entire contents of the mug back in one gulp, which he instantly regrets, the moment it hits his tongue and the taste. Oh, sweet Arceus. The horrid, awful taste. Like old socks and something rancid. Raihan doesn’t spit it right out because the ghost of Mrs. Fairweather would haunt him til his dying day for the rudeness of it, so he swallows desperately, eyes full of tears as the tea hits his stomach like a hot, pungent ball of gross.
“I know,” Leon says, sympathetically, one hand rubbing circles over Raihan’s back while Raihan scrapes his tongue against his teeth, trying to get the godawful taste off. “I know, I’m sorry. I made lemongrass tea, though! To take the aftertaste away.”
“That was, quite possibly, the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” Raihan replies, squinting at his boyfriend and his seemingly innocent mug of tea, so deceptively similar-looking to the utter monstrosity Raihan can still feel warm in his belly.
“Probably,” Leon chirps back in amusement, eyebrows arched, “but I bet you didn’t even notice you can breathe again.”
Takes an exaggerated breath, but the threat of a cough, always rasping in the back of his throat til then, is completely gone.
He blinks and repeats the exercise, but he can feel air flow easily and without a hitch all the way down his lungs.
“Huh,” he says, taking the mug and braving a cautious sip that yields hot but very much palatable tea.
“Told you,” Leon says, flashing a small victory sign. “Nan’s recipes work best.”
The bed is at least a foot too small for him. There’s a frigid blizzard howling outside. He’s stuck inside his own head, drowning in his own thoughts and all the nonsense that comes with being sick. But even so.
Raihan curls up against Leon’s side, careful of his mug, sipping at it slowly to make it last, basking in the way it warms his hands like Leon’s arm around his shoulders warms his back.
It’s still somehow the best New Years he’s ever had, as far back as he can remember.
Chapter 7: Raihan & Leon camping in the Isle of Armor
“Do you want help with that?” Leon asks, watching Raihan fuss with the bag of treats Ms. Honey was nice enough to given them. “How are your ribs?”
Raihan arches an eyebrow and shakes his head.
“I’m fine,” he chuckles, “I can handle s’mores, Lee.”
“Rai, I love you, but you can barely fry an egg on a good day,” Leon deadpans, a mixture of concerned and solemn, looking at him dubiously. “ How are your ribs?”
Raihan doesn’t bother to look offended and merely sighs, leaning on his side as he looks at the supplies he’s trying to sort out into place. He looks relaxed, but then, he’s looked relaxed the whole time, even as he passed out in Leon’s arms, and slept off the worst of it in the hospital and just. Leon would very much like it, if Raihan stopped being so chill about things for maybe five minutes. It’s unnerving.
Now that the Gym Challenge is over, Leon expected Raihan to stop being… so well put together about the whole thing. To be angry or stressed or sad or something. But he was right as rain the whole time, except for the bit he wasn’t at all, and even now, Leon can hear the sound, bone snapping under pressure. He feels bad for that, for wanting Raihan to be upset, and when he stumbles on the thought, it will not leave him be. But he just doesn’t quite understand how Raihan can be so… calm and composed about the whole thing. He wouldn’t be, in his shoes.
“Stop thinking so loud,” Raihan says, and then tugs Leon at the precise moment he is stretching to grab some of their supplies, so he loses his balance and lands square in his lap. “You’re being silly.”
“But—” Before Leon can properly articulate that no, he’s not silly, he’s just concerned and also a little terrified of hurting Raihan, Raihan grabs one of his hands and presses it under his shirt, right against his side. “Rai!”
“My ribs are doing fine,” Raihan says, eyes half-lidded and expression teasing, as he shuffles Leon until he’s straddling his lap, one hand pressing Leon’s firmly along his sides, under his shirt, and the other curled around Leon’s back, holding him in place. “But if you’re that worried, you’re always welcome to examine them thoroughly.”
Leon stares at him blankly for a moment, and then promptly blushes.
And then he remembers Ms. Honey winking at him and insisting the lagoon was the perfect place to camp under the stars for some time alone with his boyfriend, since absolutely no one would be heading that way for any reason. How remote and private it was. It’d seemed a bit weird, at the time, considering Leon had been busy running a list of supplies in his head and raiding them from her pantry.
It finally clicks into place, loud against the sudden, empty silence in his head.
The blush spreads, he can feel the heat, as it travels down his neck.
“I might need to double check,” Leon says, voice rough, as he slides his other hand under Raihan’s shirt as well. “Just to be sure.”
“Oh?” Raihan asks, leaning back on his elbows, “are we at the point of playing Nurse Joy?”
Leon leans forward, to chase after him.
Later, much later – after relocating to the inside of the tent, which isn’t, matter of fact, full of sand, and thus infinitely more conductive for the kind of playful, leisure sex they wanted to have – Leon finds himself curled up in Raihan’s arms. This isn’t unusual: Raihan is taller than him and very shameless about using that to his advantage when it’s time to cuddle. And he cuddles a lot, too. He’s always touching Leon: an arm around his shoulders or his chin atop his head – with the prerequisite compliment to his hat of the day, too – or his hands on Leon’s waist or face or somewhere.
It occurs to Leon that they haven’t properly cuddled since the accident, mostly because he’s been deadly afraid of further upsetting Raihan’s wounds. Of making things worse.
“I’m sorry,” Raihan says, legs and arms wrapped snuggly around Leon’s, face tucked into the curve of his neck. “I scared you pretty badly.”
Outside, their fledging campfire has reduced to embers that glow in the dark that’s fallen all around them. The lagoon glitters under the moonlight, like a thousand tiny diamonds scattered on its surface, and the sky is covered in stars, even more than there had been in Postwick, because they’re in an island perfectly isolated from the world. It seems like paradise, right there and then.
“I wasn’t the one hurt,” Leon tries to argue, but his point is slightly undermined by how tightly he’s clinging to Raihan, how reassuring he finds it to be held like this again.
“Special moves aren’t physical,” Raihan points out, kissing the underside of Leon’s chin. “But they still hit pretty hard.”
And it’s the kind of silly, patient metaphor that Raihan would use, because Raihan is good with children and people acting like them, that Leon can’t help but laugh.
“Turns out,” Leon says, “hits against you are super effective against me.”
“I thought I was being reassuring, trying to shrug it off,” Raihan explains, and his right hand curls over Leon’s arm until it reaches his hand and then their fingers are clutching each other’s, pretty tightly. “It’s not the first time I’ve gotten hurt in the enclosure. Hell, it’ll probably won’t be the last. It’s just… it’s just how it is, when you’re dealing with very powerful pokemon that have been so grossly abused. That’s why I don’t let any of you do the really dangerous stuff down there. I guess it didn’t work that way, huh.”
Leon snorts loudly.
“I am a mess,” he says, rather bluntly. “I know that. I am a literal mess of a human being and if you were smart, you’d have run away screaming already—”
“Lee—” Raihan interrupts, frowning, but Leon shakes his head, tightening his grip on his hand.
“But you didn’t, haven’t, somehow, and I love you for that and for many other reasons I won’t tell you ‘cause it’ll go straight to your head,” Leon continues, bravely ignoring Raihan’s snort. “You always let me… fall to pieces, if I have to. And I have, I know I have. But it’s just… it feels like I don’t know how to explain it’s okay if you have to fall to pieces sometimes too. Like one of those trust building exercises, you know? I promise, I’ll catch you.” Leon swallows hard. “I’ll always catch you. It’s okay if you let me take care of you a little, sometimes.”
Raihan lets out a slow breath, slumping against Leon’s back.
“You already do, Lee.”
Leon shrugs, undeterred.
“Then let me do it more.” He nudges Raihan’s head with his chin until he catches his eye and smiles. “I wanna spoil my boyfriend sometimes, it’s that so bad?”
“Terrible,” Raihan sighs, shifting until he can press a kiss to Leon’s cheek. “I suppose you might as well start spoiling me with s’mores, then.”
“I can do that,” Leon nods sagely, and then grins. “I can also point out we could wash up first, since the water ought to be pretty warm this time of the year.”
Raihan does not reply with words, but s’mores are in fact made and eaten… sometime before dawn.
Chapter 8: Nessa and Sonia's first date
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.
“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.”
“It’s a date, then!”
It’s not, Nessa thinks despairing, but she desperately wishes it were.
Chapter 9: Leon & Piers bonding
“This is dumb,” Piers says, sitting on the back of his hydreigon.
“Absolutely,” Leon agrees, comfortable against charizard’s back, as they sort of glide high above Hammerlocke, so far high the Keep and the Spire look small, and the fall would be nothing short of lethal if they slipped. It’s so far high the air is frigid enough the only reason Leon’s teeth aren’t clattering is that there’s still enough beer coursing through his veins that his face feels perpetually burning. “But it’s the fun kind of dumb.”
Piers doesn’t look convinced. That’s fine, Leon is used to people reacting that way – at the very least – when he shares this particular hobby of his. He’s decided this is a hobby, matter of fact, because the alternative is calling it a maladaptive coping mechanism and he likes it too much for it to be a thing he should stop doing. So there’s that.
“How do you give the order to pull back?” Piers asks, rubbing his palms on his thighs, starting a little warily at the three heads playfully throwing bites at each other, like they’re wont to do whenever they’re outside their pokeball for more than five minutes and there isn’t a clear objective Piers needs them to obliterate.
“You don’t,” Leon replies, and then giggles at the offended look Piers gives him. “You don’t! They know better than we do, what they can do. You just gotta trust them.”
“Or else you go splat,” Piers deadpans, eyes narrowed.
There’s a moment, there, where Leon expects Piers to back out. Most people have. Actually, all people have, so far. Only Nat has ever taken to play tag with him like that, but whether he’ll want to now that he’s bound to Gloria is anyone’s guess. He misses playing tag with him, though, he realizes. It’s a bit boring not having anyone to fly with, even if flying itself has always been a private pleasure of his. Leon reckons it’s silly how easily he gets used to company, even if he’s gone so long without it.
“Ah hell,” Piers says, “why not?”
And then he pats hydreigon right where the necks split up, as if to give them the go ahead. Hydreigon roars, all three heads in unison for once, and then drops down so abruptly Leon can’t hear the full curse slip through Piers’ lips. Leon laughs and shifts his weight, and charizard picks up the order tacitly, well aware of what to do.
Then they’re dropping, and as soon as they hit terminal velocity, they stop dropping and it feels like floating. There’s the drunken euphoria bubbling away in Leon’s veins, making him giggle as he spreads his arms to feel the rush of air cutting through his hair, and then all too soon, he’s clutching his hat as charizard swerves, wings wide open, and suddenly they’re going back up, and not splat. He catches a glimpse of Piers, arms thrown around hydreigon’s middle neck, curled forward and eyes tightly shut, and he reckons that at least he tried. That’s more than most people do, when it comes to this. Even Raihan.
Charizard circles hydreigon, once they’re back at a decent height, and Piers is still clutching hydreigon for his dear life. Leon would worry about the cranky dragon getting prissy about it – he’s willing to give it belly rubs and call it pet names, partly just for the sake of making Piers prissy about it, but Leon is both a certified dragon trainer and a very proud Gym Trainer in Hammerlocke Gym, he’s perfectly aware of the sheer damage Piers’ Alolan hydreigon could unleash, if it got into the mood – but one of the heads is looking back at Piers, observing, and the other two are staring straight ahead, carefully careless and poised.
And then Piers shudders a breath, and sits back up, balanced in place – good, good, Leon managed not to make him permanently scared of flying on his partner’s back, at least – and his hair is a ludicrous mess that Leon itches to brush for him, even though he’s sure he’d lose a finger if he tried.
“We’re going to do that again,” Piers says, voice low and steady, blue eyes icy sharp as they pin Leon in place, and then he snarls at the look of surprise Leon can’t quite stifle back. “And then we’re going home, and you’re going to feed me, and I will refuse to explain why I’m going to cry.”
Raihan finds them thus, when he gets home: Leon sitting on the living room couch, watching reruns of the Johto League, and Piers sprawled as long he is, head pillowed in Leon’s lap and eyes the particular kind of red and itchy that only comes after letting yourself become a proper bawling mess – Leon would know, he’s a regular cry baby when he forgets he’s not ten anymore. Leon doesn’t ask, and of course Piers doesn’t explain, but it’s okay.
He remembers, even as he twists his fingers into the weirdly textured ropes of striped, two-tone colored hair, once upon a time, Lydia of Spikemuth had a hydreigon of her very own.
Of course Piers remembers too.
Not all ghosts, Leon reckons, are the sort he's meant to see.
Chapter 10: Piers and Sonia, the First Official Meeting
“Can I help you?” Piers asked, not looking away from the small cooler box tucked away in a corner, rummaging around for a can of watmel berry soda which he then popped open before finally turning to face her, suitably dubious scowl in place.
“That was an interesting song,” Sonia pointed out, distracted from her actual reason to seek out Spikemuth’s elusive Gym Leader, by the blatant thirsting over her… childhood best friend.
They were still friends, obviously, just… just not like they used to, not best friends by any stretch. Best of anything, really. A lot of Sonia’s life could be summed up like that, really, and this current errand she was running for her grandmother – that’s what she did, in the end, run errands around Galar, and it was fine, except for the part it clearly wasn’t – had been slowly but surely driving the point home. They were friends because they’d never had a proper falling out, and that was probably the thing that irritated her the most. Leon owed her at least one last good screaming match, and he’d refused her the privilege by being consistently successful and good at what he did.
It was maddening.
But even so, she’d had a sudden, near instinctual realization that Piers’ last song on that set had been about Leon, except Piers made a habit to wear a black ring on the middle finger of his right hand for as long as she could remember, and it had, in fact, been one of the first things she’d ever noticed about him, upon their first formal meeting, because he was pale bordering on transparent and it stood out.
It stood out.
When they were four and Leon asked her, mid despairing sob, why couldn’t she just let things be, for once, why not just do as they were told and not end up with them grounded or scared or half trampled by a startled herd of wooloo… Sonia had had a fit of inspiration, and explained that sometimes things felt like a loose tooth, awkward and taunting, and she couldn’t help but rub at it until it fell off and then her mouth was full of blood and they ended up with so much muck and gum and junk stuck to their hair, that it had to be sheared off. But that was then and this was now: both her and Leon had long hair and had had it for years now. No one stuck gum or junk or gunk, and they were both off doing their own thing, just fine on their own.
Piers’ song, with its catchy chorus and verses slurred dramatically into his standing mic, it felt like a loose tooth, a tiny bit of something that didn’t fit.
“I’m an interesting musician,” Piers deadpanned, sipping his soda and squinting at her somewhat disdainfully.
He wasn’t though. Not really. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t interesting. He sang catchy love songs about pinning and longing and nothing more deep than borderline adolescent romance not quite there yet. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t interesting. Not entirely.
The thought shifted in her brain, uncomfortable and unsettled, tipping around what she knew about Piers – not that much, really, his mother had been friends with Sonia’s grandmother (everyone had been friends with Sonia’s grandmother, one way or another) and he kept to himself, much the same way her grandmother did. Possibly for the same reasons she did. There were rumors that he was friends with Raihan, though, much the same way his mother and Raihan’s predecessor had been friends. Sonia didn’t dislike Raihan, per se. Not actively. He’d never done anything to her to inspire her wrath – the fault, as always, was Leon’s, but really, it was hers, for letting Leon have some piece of her, even knowing Leon was clumsy even when he meant his best – and she doubted he even knew he was her replacement, as rival to Galar’s hopelessly undefeated Champion. He’d even let her into his Vault without a fuss, just because she asked – because Leon was there, quipping absently that she was a friend, and of course Raihan was charming and personable to any of his rival’s friends – and she knew what it meant, the Lord of Hammerlocke divesting himself of his secrets like that, the kind of person who did so with such good will.
Because Leon asked.
“Holy shit,” Sonia said, without raising her voice in the slightest, “you just spent three hours singing songs about how much Raihan can’t tell Leon he loves him.”
Piers spat out his drink, mostly through his nose.
“It’s mutual,” Sonia added, shrugging expansively, as if that in itself could communicate everything she hadn’t said. “By the way. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me, to write songs about it. I’m not very musically inclined.”
“Bloody hell,” Piers croaked out, still coughing up carbonated berry juice up his nose. “Did you come all the way here just to try and kill me like that?”
Sonia blinked at his disgruntled glare, and then laughed.
“No,” she replied, and didn’t take it too hard, because Piers being melodramatic was a constant she’d long taken for granted. “But I did come with a music related query.” She smiled in the face of the suspicious look he was given her, over the edge of the hand towel he was using to dry his face. “I’m investigating the legend of the Darkest Day, for my grandmother, you see. And there’s this… nursery rhyme, I guess, that keeps getting repeated, over and over again. I was looking at the archives in Circhester, and found a pretty complete transcript of it, in a newspaper from about two hundred years ago. And there was something in the article that caught my eye, this festival they kept mentioning, the—”
“Glittering Night, yeah,” Piers replied, interrupting, but there was a calculated disinterest as he spoke. He was very careful to not look at her in the eye as he went about throwing himself into the futon couch, absently plucking notes from his guitar. “Used to be end of mining season celebration. You can mine every day, all year long, but that’s how you end up with dead mines, like Rose’s. Spikemuth’s mine only worked in the summer, and it always produced more than enough to keep miners and their families fed the entire year, and then some. Mine hasn’t worked in years, though, so no more festival either. Doubt anyone cares to remember what it was like, before. Raw spot for most, you understand.”
She didn’t. It was probably about why Spikemuth suddenly declined so violently, after his mother’s death, but she hadn’t been able to find any news or sources on that. Well, now she knew the mine had stopped working, which would of course be a crippling blow for the town. But there was something to Spikemuth and its people, an edge that made her intuit the shape of something more. Something else.
She wasn’t going to find out, though. He was clearly not going to tell her, and she didn’t feel comfortable walking out and stopping people just to ask why their town had ended up looking like it did. It was a mystery she’d have to let go, for now, because her grandmother was waiting on her findings, and she had a job to do. She couldn’t just lose focus and start chasing ghosts.
“I remember, though,” Piers said, after a long moment, still not looking at her. “It’s been years, but… there was a verse about a foggy weald, south where the king’s shadow couldn’t reach. About a promise slumbering there.”
The tooth came off, all at once.
“Ooooh,” Sonia said, pieces rearranging in her head. “Oh, that’s so helpful. Piers, I—"
“Don’t tell him,” he added, after a moment. “Leon.” When she blinked at him, he offered a faint, crooked smile. “About my songs.”
Sonia snorted, rather unkindly.
“He can damn well figure it out on his own,” she said severely, shaking her head. “Thank you for your time, Piers. I—"
Piers’ smile widened slightly.
“You came all the way here,” he said, shrugging. “Lemme at least buy you lunch, girlie. Else your grandma’s gonna beat my ass for shitty hospitality. Not to mention your girlfriend.”
Sonia thought for a moment and then shrugged. Free food was free food, and she was feeling more than a little peckish. Maybe they could chat and she might be able to piece together more about the history of his town.
“Sounds lovely, actually,” Sonia replied, smiling, “thank you.”
Piers put the guitar on the couch and slouched back upright. He was taller than her, even with the dip in his spine, but when he offered an arm for her to take, she didn’t hesitate.
“Off we go, then,” he said, tugging her along into a darken street, “Welcome to Spikemuth.”
Chapter 11: Blaine, playing god + bonus cameo of an old charismatic bastard
The problem with playing god, Blaine knows, is the fact it is always, in fact, a play.
It takes planning and effort and research, contingencies and variables accounted for in the neat procedural documents that accompany every attempt. But the difference between playing and being comes down to this:
Sometimes the math was on point and the science was precise and the samples were perfect and still, still, something went wrong.
And then all the careful planning collapsed into chaos, all the serious, stern-faced experts flailing around like magikarp stranded ashore. If they were gods, the posturing and the ego matched by real might, then even the most unpredictable unknowns would be nothing to them. But they’re not.
Blaine is a fire specialist, has always been. He knew his starter partner, Dolly, was going to evolve into a flareon before he conquered his first gym battle. Of course that was before he found himself detouring through Viridian, befriending the son of the Viridian gym leader and, somehow, through a series of incidents he’s never been able to properly map out but which probably derived from the fact Giovanni had always had more charisma than sense, and they found themselves enrolled in Saffron City’s Academy, sharing a dingy apartment with his other oldest, dearest friend, Fuji, and coming up with ludicrous ideas that Giovanni invariably talked them into making reality because… why not?
Blaine likes the honesty of fire. Fire does not pretend to be something it’s not: it’s dangerous and beautiful and exactly as advertised on the can. There’s no second guessing with fire, what it can or cannot do. It’s weak against water and the bane of all grass types. It’s primarily biased toward special attack and demoralizes opponents enough to eat into their own attack stats if properly used. Blaine likes fire, that it’s dangerous and beautiful and a perfect metaphor for most of the things he’s had a hand in creating, even if none of his man-made pokemon ever ended up being fire types.
So when Cinnabar went and exploded on him – he doesn’t take it personally, the volcano is as old as the island and it does tend to erupt every decade or so, they’d been long overdue and he should have known better than to think it wouldn’t happen anymore – and he ended up in Seafoam waiting for the new crust to harden and cool down enough to start rebuilding – he doesn’t need to be in Cinnabar anymore, not like he did, back when he actually went and finished his gym challenge so he could be eligible to challenge Lavender’s gym leader and then relocate his new gym to the furthest corner of Kanto, because Giovanni had an idea and didn’t want to drag Viridian into it, but Cinnabar is home and there’s too much history in it now, to leave it all behind, because Blaine is an old goof and he’s entitled to his memories – he doesn’t see himself as the person who should look after the newly hatched baby articuno that he stumbles upon while wandering around the caves. Ice is everything fire is not, and Blaine considers sending it instead to Lorelei or Pryce, who have much better knowledge of ice types and what they need.
In the end he doesn’t, though, much the same way he’s never really owned his status as founding member and still active beneficiary of Team Rocket’s vast network of dubiously legal bullshit, for approximately the same reason: he is fundamentally the selfish kind of idiot that would do all the things he’s done, fucked up in all the glorious ways he has. So yeah. Yeah, he’s a fire type specialist – the fire type specialist, the oldest and strongest and that’s without Dolly regularly in his roster, because he thinks pokemon battles should be enjoyed and only bullies enjoy curbstomping people until they quit – and he’s raised an articuno, the only known one kept in captivity, at that, who might not be the legendary titan that enveloped the world into its first ice age out of spite, before Lugia sang her and her siblings into precarious peace, but that still learned and mastered sheer cold before her dewy feathers fell out.
Blaine doesn’t battle with Babydoll – he named her Babydoll and taught her to do swirls for treats, and Oak will never forgive him for it, either of them – because he’s a fire specialist and she’s a mirage of ice and power few things could stand to battle on fair terms. Instead, he takes her along whenever news reach him that men tried to play god again, and the universe decided to remind them they weren’t the real deal, again. It happens often enough to make him regret releasing the schematics of his fossil restoration machinery to the world.
Sometimes, he wishes people understood that to be as consistently brilliant as people insist he is, for as long as he’s been fighting off unsubtle attempts to append Professor to his name, one needs to amass a corresponding list of failures and regrets weighty enough to make one’s knees bend. But no one wants to listen to that. No one wants to hear an old man warn them not to do the very things he’s spent his entire life doing. Blaine gets it, he hates the hypocrisy of it all just as much.
But not as much as he hates the calls, when they come, the panic and the tears. When the calls come, Blaine leaves his team behind and takes only the modest pokeball that houses the one non-fire type pokemon he has. Babydoll has abnormally high crit chances to hit sheer cold and so very rarely she needs a second try to get the job done.
The price of the cleanup is confiscation of the remains, and Blaine is adamant about it. The real price is the report he sends the League, when he’s done, the scathing recommendation to close down the labs and research facilities, and prevent a second call from coming his way. But they don’t need to know that. They’re happy to let him take their shame away, hide from their mistakes and pretend he’s going to learn something meaningful from their mistakes, anything he doesn’t already know: that their fuckups are his fuckups, compounded by time and stupidity. A mathematical formula neatly designed to assign guilt.
He is the gym leader of Cinnabar Island, home to the pokemon mansion and the birthplace of far too many monstrosities to be named: but he stole the title from Lavender, and even now, he can’t say he’s never learned to respect the value of a good memorial.
“You look like shit, Old Man,” Giovanni greets him, sitting in his office, absently rummaging through his files because the porygon colony that controls his entire filing system is a filthy traitor and has always liked Giovanni better out of all three of them.
“Whatever it is,” Blaine says, immediately seven times more tired than he already was, “the answer is no.”
“I heard you’re going to Galar next month,” Giovanni goes on, blithely ignoring the rebuke. “Figured I might as well cash on that favor you owe me.”
“I literally just said no,” Blaine replies, shoulders slumping in early defeat, because it’s not like it’s a favor Team Rocket’s former boss is owed. They’re long past the point of keeping score, honestly. Blaine walks up to the desk and takes the whiskey glass out of Giovanni’s hand, knocking it back in one go. “Not that you care.”
“Come now, Blaine,” he says, “weren’t you the one lecturing me earnestly about how I should be mending fences with family?”
Blaine proceeds to serve himself a second drink.
“And you took my well-meaning advice and used it to justify driving your son to drinking,” he points out, eyebrows arched, though it’s not like this is new: Giovanni has always had a talent to drive sensible people to drink. The novelty that he counts himself among them now is still fairly shiny and new, as far as Blaine’s concerned. “Besides,” he adds, snorting, “you don’t have family in Galar.”
Here’s the truth about playing god, as far as Blaine is concerned: no one, ever, should. Not because it’s unethical. Not because it invariably ends up in disaster and pain and suffering. But because it’s as infectious as Giovanni’s smile, and even all these years later, Blaine still hasn’t figured out how to stop.
Giovanni smiles the way he always does, when people bring in water types to counter his ground types, right before he shows off all the fun TMs the nido line can learn.