The Long Road
Growing up the son of the richest man on this side of the western sea, Steven was no stranger to opulence. He'd seen his fair share of expensive furnishings and rooms three times the size they needed to be.
Which was why his temporary quarters in the guest suite at the Ever Grande League building didn't really shock him the way it might have for a less-well-off trainer.
In fact, for the first time he could remember, he was glad for all of the extravagance. The generous size of the suite was perfect for his pokemon, and the first thing he did upon arriving at his room was to release his partners from their pokeballs.
They only stood and gaped at the rich draperies and marble floors for a moment before fairly mobbing their trainer in an enthusiastic group hug that left Steven laughing, slightly bruised, and thankful that Skarmory wasn't exactly the hugging type.
Fairly fending off his pokemon, he finally convinced them to settle down enough to explore their new home. As best they could, all seven of them shuffled from room to room, ooh-ing and ahh-ing until they ended up giddy and breathless on the spacious balcony that overlooked the island.
Suit jacket long since discarded, Steven leaned against the railing, sighing as the sea breeze tousled his hair. The late summer sun still hung high in the sky, and the expanse of water that stretched beyond Ever Grande's cliffs sparkled like a thousand gemstones.
He'd often dreamed about what it would be like; the promise of spending every tomorrow with his pokemon. What it would feel like with the weight of Devon lifted from his shoulders. Sure, there was a new burden now, but with his team at his side, he figured that was one he could handle.
But despite the serene backdrop, he found himself frowning. What Drake had said lingered in his mind. That winning the Championship position was the easy part. Hanging onto it was where the difficulty lay.
As the youngest Champion in Hoenn's history, he'd just painted a huge target on his back. Veterans salivated at the thought of preying on a fresh Champion, and a new crop of trainers would be inspired to start their own journeys.
And they'd all be coming for him.
He'd have to train harder than ever, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was what happened if it wasn't enough?
His hands wrapped a little tighter around the balcony railing only to feel a reverberating hum travel up through the metal. Metagross's presence shifted at his side, and Steven looked down to find his starter staring at him with conviction in its gaze.
They wouldn't lose. Not if it and the five other pokemon crowding around the balcony had anything to say about it.
Smiling, Steven shook his head. "You're right, I can't think like that. Forgive me, I'm probably just tired."
Metagross rumbled an agreement, eyes now fixated on where Cradily had nestled up close to Armaldo, and the way Skarmory's head drooped in a sleepy nod. Even the stalwart Aggron couldn't stifle a yawn. Excitement or not, the day's battling had taken a toll on them all.
Before turning back to the room, Steven spared one last glance at Hoenn's landscape. They'd have all the time in the world to admire that view as long as they worked hard. Running a hand along Metagross's brow as he went inside, he made his way over toward his pack. Scooping it up, he deposited it on the bed before rummaging through to retrieve a more comfortable set of clothes. But as he pulled out a few items, his hand landed on the rain jacket he had stashed at the bottom, and he paused, the waterproof fabric gripped tightly in his hand.
All of a sudden, the memories rushed back unbidden. The miserable day in the rain that prompted its purchase. The day relaxing at the shore afterward. Finding the water stone that he eventually gifted away… All of the snapshots in the mental journal of his journey. The wave of nostalgia hit him hard, and he had to place a steadying palm against the mattress.
He'd come so far. So very far from that empty house in Rustboro. From that quiet boy who only hoped to one day make a name for himself that wasn't Devon, to strike forth into the world and see great and wondrous things with his own two eyes. And here he stood with his pack fuller than his wallet, the wealth of experiences far more valuable than any riches from a corporate bank account, and he couldn't have been any happier.
When he got no further than unpacking a handful of items, Metagross rumbled a curious tone that stirred Steven from his thoughts.
"Ah, I'm sorry. I'm awfully distracted today, aren't I?"
But as he turned to regard his faithful partner, instead of meeting its gaze, he was greeted by a pillow to the face.
Steven froze, the fluffy projectile bouncing lightly to the ground, and he fixed his pokemon with an incredulous stare.
Cradily had two more pillows in her tendrils, and Aggron seemed to be the one handing her even more. Armaldo had grasped another one himself, clutching it in a makeshift shield. Steven swore he could hear a pin drop as all eyes were fixated on him. At least until another pillow was sent his way, a psychic blue outline telling him either Claydol or Metagross was the culprit.
His starter's grating laugh cut through the air as chaos erupted, Steven grabbing ammunition of his own to send back at his mischievous teammates. The battle was a short one, and by the time it was over it was clear that the human had lost this one.
Still slightly out of breath, Steven found himself on the floor in a pile of pillows that surely consisted of every cushion in the room. Too tired to make his way back to the bed, he resigned himself to his fate; there were worse places to take a nap. Aggron huffed a contented noise as it curled up at the back of the pile, and something told Steven his pokemon had planned this from the very beginning.
In short order, the rest of his team gathered around their trainer, cozying up to pile of cushions themselves. Cradily nestled herself against the pillows at Aggron's side, and Armaldo plopped down next to her, wiggling his way into the pile until it covered him in a plush layer of padding. Not needing a pillow of its own to settle down, Claydol hovered up the to group to rest within the curl of Aggron's tail, while Skarmory selected a particularly large cushion to use as its roost. Finally, Metagross sidled up next to Aggron's head and lowered itself into the pile, completing the semicircle.
Laying there, surrounded by his pokemon, Steven couldn't help but be reminded of the night they spent back in Rustboro. The night that he solidified his resolve to climb to the top. The night before he made his partners a promise that they would reach that height together. The same night before they resoundingly agreed to go with him.
And again they gathered together the night before they'd officially make that promise a reality.
Feeling the satisfied hum of his starter, Steven sunk even further into the pillows, giving one last look back to the forgotten four post bed. No, this wasn't a bad place for a nap at all.
Steven awoke to the sound of the room's intercom beeping. Blearily he extracted himself from the pile of sleeping pokemon and picked up the receiver.
"Good morning, Champion. You have a visitor, should I send them up?"
It took him a moment to register that it was the nurse from the front desk calling, and that the Champion she addressed was actually him.
"Oh, uh, sure. Thank you."
As he ended the call, he caught a glimpse of the time on the clock. A quick glance out the balcony windows corroborated the clock's story. Dawn light was spilling over the landscape, and he marveled at just how long he had slept. He must have been more tired than he thought.
But even though he was awake now, it still was quite early. Who could be visiting him at this hour? Drake had said they would get started first thing the next day, but this seemed too early, even for the former Champion. Besides, he was sure Drake had no need to call on his room from the reception desk.
Whoever it was, though, he surely had to tidy himself up before they arrived. As quietly as he could, he pulled a fresh pair of clothes from his pack, but he could hear his pokemon stirring as he moved about the suite. Just as he was hopping into his trousers, there was a knock at the door. Hastily combing a hand through his hair, he stepped over a few stray pillows en route to the door and took one more breath to compose himself before swinging it open to reveal his mystery guest.
Only to be greeted by the beaming smile of Joseph Stone.
All of his earlier effort to stay quiet went out the window at his surprised shout. Ignoring Aggron's grumpy snort at being awoken so rudely, Steven continued to gape at his father.
"What are you doing here?"
Joseph threw his arms wide, still grinning. "I'm here to congratulate you! Why else would I be here?"
"You… you came here just for that?"
"Of course, you're my son, and I couldn't be more proud! Got a lot further than your old man would've, that's for sure. I came as soon as Drake called."
"Wait," Steven finally pulled himself together, "Drake called you?"
"Oh sure! He and I go way back."
And Steven was back to gaping again. "You never told me you knew the League Champion!"
"Well, he wasn't the Champion when I knew him. When I left the navy, he stayed behind. I hadn't seen him in years until today."
"Then, did he…?"
"Know you were my son? He had his suspicions."
Steven groaned, running an exasperated hand down his face.
"Don't worry, even if he knew from the start, there's no way he'd go easy on you on account of who you are." Joseph gave a wistful smile. "I know that from personal experience. ...So, may I come in?" He peered over Steven's shoulder, expectantly eyeing the couch, although he was blissfully unaware that it currently was missing all of its cushions.
"Oh! Right! Sorry, Dad. I… uh…"
Steven fumbled for a second, sweeping the door wide as he moved aside, still trying to figure out the coincidence of it all.
Looking around, Joseph whistled. "Not bad —oh!"
He froze as six sets of eyes turned and stared at the man who looked vaguely like their trainer. Skarmory clacked its beak, eyes sharp, but Metagross gave a low rumble of reassurance just as Steven arrived at his father's side.
"Everyone, this is my Dad. He… uh…" Steven sent a sheepish glance toward his father. "I'm sorry for not introducing you to them sooner."
But when a hand wrapped around his shoulder, his dad sent him a small smile. "It's okay. You were busy. ...And so was I…" Joseph's voice trailed off. Gently, he guided the two of them over to the couch just as Cradily was placing the last of the cushions back in place.
Pausing, Joseph dug into his coat pocket and pulled something out, but kept it tightly clenched in his grasp.
"I came here to tell you how proud I am of you."
At the way Steven's expression tightened, he quickly continued.
"And to give you this. I figured in person it would…" Joseph faltered, turning the object over in his hand. "It was your mother's, and I think you should be the one to keep it from now on."
Sitting in the center of his palm was a ring. A simple, silver band adorned only by a thin groove running along the center of its width.
Steven stared at it for a moment before meeting his father's gaze, a look of surprise and confusion warring in his eyes.
"She may not have been a trainer herself, but she always said that you had the spark for adventure in you. I told myself otherwise countless times, you were my son after all, Devon would be yours! But I'm glad I listened to her in the end. She always was right."
Staring at the ring now resting in his own hand, Steven slowly turned it in his grasp, brow still furrowed in thought. "Dad…"
"I know I haven't spoken to you about your mother very much, and well, this isn't really the time either. But you're about to embark on the next great journey of your life, and I think she'd want to be your guiding hand. I know she's been mine this whole time, and I'm fully prepared for when—" Joseph coughed as he felt Steven tense, "Err, if you're ever ready to join me at Devon. But I want you to know that no matter where life takes you, we're so very proud of you. Both of us. I hope this can be a reminder that she's smiling down on you, always."
His father's words were sincere, but Steven still couldn't tear his eyes away from the small, silver object in his palm. The only tangible link he had to the woman who lived in old photographs and hazy childhood memories.
Sensing its trainer's tumbling emotions, Metagross moved up to the couch with a soft hum, and Joseph's gaze slid to where it stood.
"I know you'll be happy here. You'll all be happy here." He reached out to give Metagross a pat on the leg, and as it rumbled in agreement, Steven finally looked up. But before he could open his mouth, Joseph rose from the couch with a small smile and only a slight groan.
"Well, I'll get out of your hair. Can't take up your whole morning, Drake mentioned you'll be busy right up to the League announcement."
He moved toward the door, and Steven was quick to follow, tucking the ring into his pocket.
"Dad, about Mom…"
But Joseph put his hand on Steven's shoulder with a shake of his head. "Another time. Just know that you got your old man's looks and your mother's heart. Now go celebrate with your team. Hoenn's eager to meet their new Champion. And don't worry, I'll be cheering the loudest out of everyone."
And with a wink and a wave, Joseph closed the door behind him.
Steven sighed as his hand unconsciously found its way back to his pocket, turning the ring over in his fingers. From its place by the couch, Metagross gave a quiet rumble, and Steven ran a shaky hand through his hair.
"I know. It was just unexpected, that's all. I didn't really know what to say after all this time."
Metagross rumbled again, and this time Steven managed a short laugh.
"Yeah, I guess it's good to have a fan."
But before he could get the next thought out, a knock came from the door behind him.
Startled, Steven turned to answer, only to find the former Champion already had let himself in.
"Look sharp, lad. It's time."
After following Drake on a winding tour through the halls of the League building, Steven found himself sitting across from the man in the Champion's study.
Just like his temporary quarters, the room was richly adorned, although it held a distinctly warmer tone with a heavy amount of wood trim and upholstered furniture. Sea charts and maps decorated the walls, and Steven had a hunch they were from Drake's personal archive. His gaze eventually landed on the liquor cabinet off to the side, no doubt it was stocked for Drake's own tastes, but Steven couldn't help think of how it would make a great display case for his collection of rocks and stones…
The old sailor caught where Steven was looking, and an amused smile peeked out from beneath his mustache.
"This will all be yours soon, lad, though I'm taking the bottles with me. But first," he slid a small sheaf of papers across the heavy oak desk, "the Champion's contract."
Scooping up the offered pen, Steven lifted the first sheet and eyed the fine print with a quirked brow. Drake must have noticed his expression, because he cleared his throat before speaking.
"Just to be sure you agree to take on the duties associated with the title. I already know the answer is yes, but we've got to get it in writing. League rules and all that."
Slowly nodding, Steven returned to scanning the documents, scribbling a signature here and a signature there, secretly hoping this was the closest the League ever got to looking like something that came from his father's desk...
Drake rose from his chair as Steven jotted down the last signature. "Sorry about all that formal nonsense." He scooped up the papers and stashed them in a pocket of his coat. "Now, let's talk about the rest of the things that have to happen before tomorrow afternoon."
Steven blinked. "Tomorrow afternoon?"
"The scheduled time for the official announcement of your new position. The League's already issued the press release."
Drake just chuckled. "Well, we need to tell the rest of the region somehow, and since the League matches aren't broadcast live, we gotta be the ones to call the media in. It's better that way though. Gives the League time to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible, and it gives you and your team time to rest and prepare for what's to come. You do know that after the official announcement, League challenges start up right away?"
Steven nodded as suddenly the nervousness crept back in. Suddenly his palms were sweaty, and he hoped Drake didn't notice how he stiffened in his seat as he set the pen down a bit too quickly. He was ready, wasn't he? Metagross's pokeball rocked at his side in reassurance, and as his hand reflexively reached down to find its ball, the former Champion's mustache quirked in a smile.
"You'll be fine, lad. I've seen it myself what you and your team can do. Battle like you did against me, and you've got nothing to worry about."
Drake's words seemed to quell some of the unease, and Steven nodded, rising along with the old sailor and making his way toward the door. Drake turned the handle and ushered the both of them out.
"Now, we've still got work to do before tomorrow. I've got to send these, and you've got an appointment with the League stylist."
Following Drake's directions to yet another room in the League building, Steven paused, his hand on the knob of the door. League Stylist… He'd always assumed that what Drake wore during the publicly televised matches was simply what the former sailor had in his wardrobe, not something appointed to him by someone else. Although from the way Drake scowled at the term "stylist", Steven figured it probably was a little of both. Not one too keen on fashion himself, he hoped he might have the same luck in not getting pushed into something outlandish or impractical.
And so with a determined look on his face, he swung the door open.
"I knew it."
For the second time that day, Steven's jaw hit the floor. The immaculately dressed duo waiting beyond the threshold was easy to instantly recognize. Standing side by side with his Master, was Wallace.
"I knew it'd be you," said Wallace with a smirk.
"W-Why are you here?"
"Don't be so dense. As a contest performer extraordinaire, Master Juan has been a style advisor for the League for years. He's helped to build the image of several of Hoenn's Champions. Of course when I heard he was being called to assist a new Champion, I asked to join him, and he agreed to let me tag along this time since, well, I must confess I had to see it with my own to eyes just to be sure. Congratulations by the way."
"And my congratulations, as well," said Juan, giving a formal bow. "After your victory at the Gym, it was only be a matter of time before we were to meet again here at the League. I very much look forward to seeing the rest of the highlights from your Championship match."
"Ah, thank you," Steven replied with a nervous smile, recalling what Drake had said earlier about the matches being recorded for posterity and also publicity. Juan had said "the rest of the highlights"... He hoped there wasn't anything too embarrassing in the video footage.
"Now then—" Juan's words startled Steven from his thoughts, "It is our responsibility to prepare you for the public eye. To take the raw potential you represent and polish it to the brilliant luster fit for a Champion."
"Right," said Wallace as he produced a tablet from beneath his cape, "You've seemingly got a good start, but it's rather drab."
Spinning the device around for Steven to see, Wallace pulled a face at the still-frame taken from one of the previous day's battles.
Steven stared at the picture of himself standing tall in the trainer's box, hand swept wide in what he assumed was a command to one of his pokemon. He finally understood where Roxanne was coming from with her suggestion… He didn't look half bad battling in a suit.
"You look like a businessman, not a world-class trainer."
Flinching as Wallace took the tablet back, he gave the water-type trainer an affronted look.
"What Wallace is trying to say," prodded Juan, "is that we want to take your look and make it something special, something exceptional."
Wallace nodded as he pulled out a stylus, a glint of excitement creeping into his expression as he focused back on the tablet. "We need something that makes you unique, dazzling. Tell me, what makes you tick?"
Steven blinked. "Um, I like rocks and —"
"No. No no no. Absolutely not. Boring! We need something flashy. Something stylish and sleek, something like…" Wallace's eyes trailed down in thought. "Something strong, yet graceful."
"Oh yes! Hoenn's champion can't be clunky. They must shine. They must be cunning and deadly, with a kind heart and nerves of steel… Wait, steel… That's it!"
But Wallace was already off and running, stylus working feverishly across the tablet. "It's got to be rich, you are royalty after all."
Steven paled as Wallace continued to work, flashes of himself dressed in the same Sootopolitan finest he'd seen the pair wearing in Lilycove, and he inwardly shuddered. If whatever Wallace was sketching had a cape…
"...A bit of shine here, some polish there…"
Wallace continued to mutter to himself as he sketched, and Steven soon became tired of the whole thing.
"Can't I just stick with a suit? It's rather grown on me."
But Wallace ignored him, stylus still flitting across the tablet.
"...Top it off with a Rustboro classic," the red cravat was sketched in, "and I'd say you'll look delightfully regal. Fit for a long reign atop the league."
"Wallace, I'm not a king…" Steven groaned, visions springing up of cloaks and crowns and too much gold and, god forbid, crushed velvet…
"Well you have a right to act like one now. And there we have it." Wallace spun the tablet around. "What do you think? The perfect blend of strength and style befitting Hoenn's top trainer."
Steven leaned forward to look at the screen, and incredulously, staring back at him was precisely what he had asked for. The suit was a pristine black, straight edged and sharply cut, and Steven had to admit it certainly didn't look like anything he'd seen at his father's office. Deep violet lines hugged the seams, and silver embellishments glinted at the clasps and sleeves. In lieu of a traditional tie, a crimson cravat was tucked into a matching vest beneath.
It was distinct, but not flashy, at least not to what Steven had been expecting to see, and as unlikely as it would be that he'd pick something out like this for himself, he didn't find himself horribly opposed to wearing it either. He was looking the design over once more to see if he was really sure about all this, when Wallace's voice cut through his musings.
"I'll take your silence as a good thing."
"It's...different," Steven offered, handing the tablet back to Wallace.
"I know, I know, not quite your cup of tea. But don't worry it'll grow on you, I promise. Besides, it'd be criminal for someone as handsome as you not to look this good otherwise."
Brows knitted as he continued to ponder Wallace's stylistic choices, it took Steven a moment before Wallace's words sunk in.
"...Did you just—?"
"Never mind what I just said, we've got to get your measurements!" and before Steven could protest, Wallace grabbed him by the arm and whisked him away to meet with the tailor.
When Wallace and Juan and the tailor were through with him, with reassurance that his suit would be ready by tomorrow's announcement, Steven was directed yet again from room to room in the League, bouncing around in meetings about protocol and regulations and Gym inspections and intra-League cooperation and by the time Steven's head began to spin and he feared he may have gotten himself into more than he could handle, Drake gave him a reassuring pat on the back that he'd get the hang of things in no time. As thin as the veteran trainer's words felt, by the time Steven found himself nearing the last stop of the day, the nervousness of the road ahead took a back seat to what lay in store for him tomorrow.
The League's official announcement.
It would only be a small affair, the live audience consisting only of reporters and League personnel, but still the thought sent his stomach tumbling, especially when Drake had said there'd be no room to have Metagross on stage with him. All eyes would be on him and just like that, it felt like the day before his trainer's school exam all over again.
As he reached his destination, he rested a hand on the doorknob and paused, wondering if maybe he could have Metagross take his place at the announcement instead… He shook his head. There's no way Drake would go for that.
Just, why did he feel so overwhelmed all of a sudden? His hand tightened around the knob, suddenly reluctant to step through the threshold and claim the suite as his own. He knew he'd accomplished something most trainers only dreamed of; he was the Champion, yet why didn't he come out the other side feeling confident and carrying himself like the person that defeated the five most powerful trainers in the region?
The nagging voice in the back of his mind began to grow, cutting through logic and reason alike to pinpoint the little bud of doubt that lingered there. He'd worked hard, he had earned this, but what if he wasn't ready?
The fierce rocking of Metagross's pokeball against his side stopped him in his tracks.
"You're right, I can't think like that," Steven sighed with a shake of his head, and the pulse of Metagross's presence dialed back just a bit. "If I'm feeling the same way in the morning, you can yell at me again."
He felt a surge of psychic reassurance at the back of his mind, and the mental note that Metagross would make good on their deal. Drawing a steady breath, Steven smiled. Metagross always seemed to know how to drown out the whispers of doubt.
Satisfied that his starter's chastising had been appeased for now, the thought of finally having some time to rest and relax outweighed the dread of the following day, and he pushed the door wide as he made his way into the room. He only made it a few steps inside when he paused again. The League really was full of surprises.
The Champion's suite was quite unlike the room he had stayed in the previous night. Its decor was rather understated and the scale of the space held a much more intimate feel. The swaths of marble and velour were replaced by aged wood and worn leather. Although it was vacant of any of the former Champion's things save for the faint odor of pipe tobacco, Steven had an inkling the overall look was due to Drake's influence. But it was far from a bad thing; he kind of preferred it that way. As much as he enjoyed marveling at beautiful stonework, there was something more appealing when it was found in a cave, and not inside a building.
There was something about these new quarters, something that put him at ease, and as he reached down for his pack that again had been delivered to the room, it struck him as to why.
Everything at Ever Grande felt larger than life; the lobby, the Elite's chambers, the League building itself, they all were too spacious and too tall and too cold, and for the first time since arriving, the scale of the place finally made him feel like he belonged. It was cozy, but not cramped. Comfortable, but not excessive. As his gaze swept across the room, it landed on the hearth, and he smiled. There was just enough space…
His partner materialized next to the armchair in a flash of light, its red eyes already finding his own, and he smiled.
"Metagross," he spread his arms wide, "Welcome to our new home."
The steel type hummed in response. A promise that if nothing else, it would make sure Ever Grande was their home for a long time to come.
At eight o'clock sharp the next morning, it was just as the tailor promised, and Steven opened the door to his chambers to find the finished suit that was to be his official Champion's attire, and two overly-chipper stylists. They urged him to hurry and get dressed so any alterations could be made, if necessary.
As it turned out, the tailor had done an impeccable job, and the suit fit like a glove, leaving nothing else to do but focus on the little things. The pair of Sootopolitans had fiddled with so many small adjustments - buttons here, a crease there, straighten that cuff - that Steven had nearly been afraid to move, let alone sit down to take a break. At least that was until Drake came bustling in and shooed the two of them out, grumbling something about too much fuss and peace and quiet. So after one final lesson from Juan on how to tie a cravat, which he was sure amused Wallace to no end, Steven found himself alone again standing in front of the full length mirror in his suite.
With a sigh of relief, he ran a hand through his hair, which amusingly had caused Wallace to huff and throw his hands in the air in defeat during one of their earlier styling sessions. It was rather haphazard, and had been for as long as he could remember. Thankfully, Wallace had left it alone after that, and he was happy for the brief respite from fashion scrutiny. There would be plenty of other scrutiny when he was up there on that stage...
Mercifully, Drake had said he wouldn't need to prepare any words for this announcement; the speeches would come later. And for that, Steven was grateful. He was sure there was no way he would be able to choke out anything coherent in front of such a crowd. But there was no sense in getting worked up now. It was still hours before the announcement, even if he had to be ready well in advance.
So rather than sit and stew in his room, he figured some fresh air might do some good, and hefted his suit jacket from the nearby stand before shrugging it on and meeting his own gaze in the glass.
His eyes went wide as he swept over his reflection in equal parts incredulity and awe. Wallace had been right; he looked so different. Not that he'd never worn fine clothes before, but there was something else, something that left him barely able to recognize the person staring back at him. Thinking back, it had been a while since he last looked at himself in the mirror. Really looked. Deep down, he felt small, still wet behind the ears. And part of that was true. But the image staring back at him looked nothing like that inexperienced trainer who nearly lost his only pokemon mere months into his journey.
That trainer was long gone. This was the face of someone who belonged here, at the head of the League. He wasn't the loud and flashy Dragon Tamer of Johto, or the grizzled navy veteran who probably had been battling for more years than he'd been alive. No, he saw someone else in that reflection with a determined gaze and a quiet command that spoke volumes without a word. Sharp, sleek, and serious, just like the team of powerful pokemon at his side.
And for the first time, Steven truly felt like a Champion.
Checking where his team of pokeballs sat on his new belt one last time, he drew a deep breath and headed out the door.
Somehow in the blink of an eye the rest of the morning was gone. A quick glance at his watch showed the press conference would start in less than fifteen minutes. Except that for as quickly as the day had gone, the wait now was agonizing.
Rather than sit patiently, Steven took to pacing the small green room where he waited for the Elite to come and usher him to the conference. Hands jammed in his pockets, he found himself fiddling with his mother's ring. Perhaps she'd be able to offer some guidance about what the future held in store.
Who was he kidding, it was all his father's story anyway. He couldn't even remember what she sounded like…
But as he turn the ring over, twisting it round and round, he did have some new voices in his head that offered words of encouragement. The Elite Four and former Champion had all worked to bolster his confidence before the big day. Sitting around the conference table, the echoes of their conversation came tumbling back.
Iona had given him a bright grin. "Don't you listen to anyone who says this was all a fluke, or some stroke of divine luck. I know a thing or two about gods and blessings from my days back in Johto, and let me tell you that this victory is all your own doing. Because there will be doubters, there always are. You just hold your head high, you earned the title fair and square."
Glacia's piercing stare never left his own, but this time it hadn't send a shiver down his spine. "I've seen you battle first hand, I know you're more than capable as our Champion. You'll have to forgive me, though, if I don't let any challengers through to your chambers. You're the first trainer in a long time that has lit such a competitive fire beneath me."
The look in Phoebe's eyes had been distant, yet firm. "You made even the spirits tremble with anticipation. They could feel this was your destiny. And, I think… I think deep down I knew it too. I still have a lot to learn about the spirits, and the League too, so let's continue to get stronger, together."
Drake had given him a pat on the back before sending him on his way at the end of their meeting. The old sailor smiled, eyeing the way the Elites excitedly chatted with one another. "It's not every day they have a new Champion to celebrate. We're all equals here, and they're excited to have you, even Glacia, though she might not look it. We all learn as we go, lad. You're quick on your feet, so you'll go far, that's for sure. They won't let you down, either. Never be afraid to ask the Elite for help; this League does not rest solely on one man's shoulders."
Only Simon had remained relatively quiet, mumbling something about lifetime accomplishments and Steven was sure he heard the word "retirement" in there too, but the sentiment still stood. It was a unanimous vote of confidence, including the former Champion himself.
The Elite had so readily accepted him into their midst, given him advice, made him one of their own. It was humbling, to say the least. And Drake almost seemed proud to be handing the title over.
His father had said the same thing; he'd been proud of what Steven had achieved, which almost felt as strange as having the person he just usurped the title from express the same sentiment. It wasn't that his father had never been proud of him, in fact, it was quite the opposite. But he was sure it had always been with one thing in mind: Devon. So to hear words of praise and have it not be about his father's company, it felt… good, but odd.
Unconsciously, the ring in his pocket found its way onto his finger again, just barely slipping over the knuckle of his ring finger where it stayed, snug. Raising his hand in front of his nose, he stared hard at the silver band as he slowly turned it around. The sensation of metal encircling his finger was foreign, but somehow comforting in a way. Sort of like his memories of her.
Would his mother truly have been proud of him too? Did she have the same expectations of him as his father? He'd never know the answer, but somehow he still felt the growing urge to prove that the journey was worth it all, and not just for his father's sake either...
Clenching his hand into a fist, the light danced off the ring's polished surface, a reflection of his newly found resolve. She might not be able to see what he'd been able to accomplish, but just maybe she'd still understand if he showed her with his own two hands.
Metagross's pokeball gave a shake at his hip, and the light clink of metal on metal sounded as he tapped its ball in acknowledgement. It might have never gotten the chance to meet her, but Steven was sure they would have gotten along. He just had a feeling and the faint recollection of a kind smile and a bright laugh and gentle hands that held up all manner of precious stones for him to see. Just like he had done for Beldum all those years ago...
A hand on his shoulder snapped him from his reverie. Iona smiled. "It's time."
Steven swallowed as she stepped forward, the other Elites filing in behind her. Glacia gave him a terse nod as she brushed by, and Phoebe's eyes were wide with excitement; it would be her first time besides her own inauguration. Simon shuffled past, and then it was his turn. He would bring up the rear, the last in line, the surprise reveal. Metagross's ball rocked again, along with the other five, and he tapped them all once before taking a deep breath and falling into step.
The stage opened up before him, slowly unveiling the crowd that awaited his appearance with bated breath. He spared a sideways glance as he stepped into view. Cameras flashed and shutters clicked and a murmur rippled through the room, all eyes glued to his every move as he slowed to a stop at Drake's side. The former Champion met his gaze with a steady look, ignoring the reporters with practiced ease, and offered a tip of his cap before turning back to the podium.
"I'm sure by now you all have guessed as to why this conference has been called..."
As Drake began, Steven finally mustered the courage to look out over the sea of faces, all eagerly upturned toward him, and it hit him all at once as he marveled at how this was more nerve wracking than any of the battles he'd fought to get to this point. He hoped the onset of nervousness didn't show through, and he had to resist the urge to fidget as he stared back at the cold lenses of the cameras in front of him.
But what had Drake said before? "You'll get used to it."
Somehow, Steven doubted it; crowds were never his thing, especially when they were all staring at him. But then again, as isolating as it felt to sit in the spotlight, he wasn't truly all alone.
At his side he felt the weight of six pokeballs, and in the back of his mind a quiet reassurance hummed through, muting the words of Drake's speech to an incomprehensible babble. Thumbing the ring around his finger, he gave quiet thanks for the support. They had gotten this far together, and together they would push on. A swell of confidence poured forth, and the sounds of the crowd came rushing back.
"... —ntroduce Hoenn's new Champion, Steven Stone!"
The clamor of the crowd grew to a roar as Metagross's presence gave a warm pulse, and he raised his hand with an easy wave and a winning smile. A picture of eloquence and power befitting the shoes he'd yet to grow into, but unquestioningly deserved to wear. The light of the sun glinted off the silver of his suit's cuffs and the band on his finger, and the traditional color of second place never shone so much like gold.
Later that evening, when the private celebration began to wind down and the champagne stopped flowing, Steven finally found a moment to himself. The Elites had proven to be quite the party crew and had been all too eager to welcome him into their midst. He'd been cautious, he and Phoebe both, but it hadn't stopped Iona's encouragement for everyone to "loosen up a little".
So surrounded by stories and laughter all night, the warm buzz of excitement and just a bit of alcohol eventually sent him seeking a bit of fresher air. Ducking under Glacia's watchful eye, he made his way toward the balcony doors.
It all felt so strange, like he was floating through a dream, and he kept waiting to wake up and find himself in his sleeping bag, camping out on the road with his team, or worse, back in Rustboro in his bedroom, having made up the whole adventure in his head. But even though he'd pinched himself several times throughout the day, he still was firmly rooted in Ever Grande surrounded by the strongest trainers in the region, all of whom now deferred to him.
He was nearly to the door when the PokeNav in his pocket buzzed, catching him by surprise. Only a precious few people had his number, and most of them were currently in the room with him. Then who could have called him?
A quick glance at the missed call notification on the screen told him all he needed to know, and the device was hurriedly shoved back in his pocket as he renewed his quest for an exit with a bit more urgency. He needed somewhere quiet to call them back.
Dodging between tables long enough to deposit his mostly-empty glass, Steven was thankful Drake had his father wrapped up in equally healthy doses of nostalgia and liquor; a conversation with his father wasn't what he had in mind right about now. As he slipped by where the two men chatted merrily, red in the cheeks, he caught his father's eye. An arm still wrapped heartily around Drake's shoulder, Joseph spared just a moment to give him a wink and a thumbs up. Steven offered a quick wave in return before he ducked past, reaching for the patio door and opening it just enough to slip outside.
He hadn't even pulled the door shut behind him before the cool evening breeze hit him all at once. Crossing the balcony, he slouched against the railing, reveling in the way it prickled at the collar of his jacket. With a sigh, he let his head roll back, filling his vision with Ever Grande's nighttime sky. Somehow the stars felt closer than they did at home. He wondered if she was looking at the same stars right now...
Before he realized it, his phone was already in his hand, and he looked down at the number called up on the display.
The heat creeping up in his cheeks had to be from the bubbly, right? Iona and Drake had been insistent that he celebrate in true fashion, and his first drink had turned into two, or three…
His thumb hovered over the send button just a moment longer before he pressed it and brought the phone to his ear.
Her shout of congratulations was probably audible in the next balcony over, but he didn't care. He was grinning like an idiot into the speaker. Roxanne excitedly chattered away on the other end of the line, and for the first time in a long time, he was excited at the prospect of going back to Rustboro. He laughed as she finally paused to take a breath.
"How could I forget about that victory tour? It was a promise, after all."
The Pokemon Trainer's Handbook, 3rd Edition sits on a shelf in a quiet study. It collects dust; a newer version on the lower shelf gets far more use. But if one were to pluck it from its resting place and flip through the dog-eared pages filled with water stains and smudges of dirt, past the numerous doodles of rocks and caves and gems, they'd find a place near the back, somewhere before the index, where a single, solitary note rests. Written in refined, if not a bit sloppy handwriting, is a date followed by three words:
"We did it."
AN: This took far too long, and I want to apologize for the wait. No real explanation other than writers block, although I'm hoping it's lifted now with the upload of this story's proper epilogue. Again, I want to thank each and every reader who stuck with me through this long and winding journey.
Thank you to everyone, and I truly mean it. First off to Izzyaro, who without them, I would not have had the courage or drive to write and share this fic. To Viroro-kun, SomeCallMeMichelle, and SilverRockets who all have offered countless hours of their time to help brainstorm, encourage, and all around improve this fic for all to enjoy. And to the rest who have shared their thoughts through reviews, or favorited and followed this fic through to the very end. No matter where you came in during the journey, I'm so glad you joined. It's through your feedback and readership that this story evolved from one stand alone chapter into the eighteen chapters you see before you. I can't thank you enough, you are all wonderful.
I do have plans for a sequel of sorts that will expand on things both during and after the events of this story. There are also two other WIPs in progress as of this epilogue's posting (both related to the same world and set of characters), although when they will be ready to share, I am not sure. You can always check my profile for updates on their progress.
Again, I want to give my thanks to you all. See you in the next fic.