At the Pokemon Center, Cranidos got a quick checkup from Nurse Joy before being handed back over to me. I sat on a bench, with my little Pokemon crouched in front of me, eating his Pokefoods. I patted his domed head.
"Are you excited to battle Bastiodon, Cranidos?"
"Cra," it replied, shooting me a "Don't talk to me while I'm eating" face. I withdrew my hand and stuck my tongue out at it.
"Oh, 'ow mature," a snarky voice said nearby, and my head snapped up. Fantina was standing over us, her nose turned up. I stood up and smiled.
"Sorry, we were just having some fun..."
"Well, zat is rude, to stick your tongue out wizz a lady watching!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't know you were-"
"Eet is all right! I am only joking!" With a hearty laugh, Fantina slapped her hand across my back, knocking my glasses slightly askew. She laughed again as I fixed them.
"You are so cute! 'Ow about zees - win zee battle wizz your Father, and I will take you out to dinnar!"
She winked, making me blush.
"Um, all right." My answer seemed to satisfy her, and she walked away. I felt confused and almost like laughing myself. Was every single Sinnoh Gym Leader some kind of pervert? What sort of group had I gotten myself into?
Cranidos was looking up at me with its little head cocked to one side - it was finished eating. I took a deep breath.
"Well, how do you feel?"
"DOS!!" It yelped, giving a little jump of excitement. I grinned.
"Great - then be ready, not long now." I returned Cranidos to his Pokeball, and then started walking to my Dad's gym.
Canalave's Gym was a place I'd spent many, many hours of my childhood, sitting in the bleachers and watching my Dad take down challengers. It had many levels to it, which could be accessed by lifts. My own Gym seemed so dull in comparison.
I paused at the boat dock near the bridge before heading inside the Gym, staring across the water. On a really, really clear day, Iron Island was visible far in the distance - just a speck, but visible. I felt a little let down that I couldn't see it at all today. The entire island was an old mine, full of Steel Type Pokemon, and great for digging around in. It was where I'd learned I wanted to be a miner, one day when I'd gone with my friend Riley. He was probably on the Island now, as he often stayed in the little cabin my Dad owned out there.
I felt startled as an arm suddenly slid around my waist, jumping a bit in shock.
"Time to stop fantasizing about me and get into the Gym."
Volkner grinned smugly at me, but I quickly pushed him away, still in shock. "Oh my god, Volkner, what if somebody saw you do that just now?!"
"Besides, I was thinking about Iron Island, not you. I was thinking about Pokemon Battles."
"But not enough that you thought to get your ass into the Gym," he smirked, patting my back while I fumed over nothing. He headed inside and I followed, staring this way and that to make sure nobody had spotted him touching me out at the dock.
When we walked into the main battling area, I heard an incredible giggling up in the stands. I looked to see Mayelene kicking her legs and trying desperatly to hold her hands over her mouth. Gardenia sat next to her, shushing, and for a second our eyes met. I glared at her and she looked sheepish. I knew Maylene had been giggling because Volkner and I had walked in at the same time - Gardenia must have tattled.
My Dad was standing on the other side of the room.
"Are you ready, son?" He called in his gruff voice, the sound echoing off the steel walls. I nodded, trying to calm down my embarrassment as I wondered just how much Gardenia had let slip.
"Ready when you are, Dad," I called back, my voice visibly shaking.
Crap. I was emotionally unstable, and about to send my unevolved Pokemon into battle with a fully evolved titan with years of Gym Battle experience. I knew how my Dad battled - I'd watched him a million times growing up.
Volkner stood on the side of the battling area, repeating the rules of the game as we all knew them by heart. One on one battle... why didn't I realize my Dad knew how to handle small, fast Pokemon? A hundred strategies whirled through my head, but I didn't have time to think, to plan, anything. I stared at my boyfriend as he finished calling the rules. It was because I'd been too busy dealing with him all morning that I hadn't though things through. Too busy handling him and reminiscing about the past and being embarrassed to hell and back by Gardenia.
My Dad sent Bastiodon out - it was as huge and powerful as ever. I shouted my orders to Cranidos, who began to run in circles around the giant, but it was waiting, and my Dad called for Iron Defense, and then again. Bastiodon glowed as it built up its already solid defense, stronger and stronger. I figured... no matter how fast Cranidos could run, or how hard it could hit, Bastidon could hold out until Cranidos exhausted itself entirely.
I had no time to think up a strategy against my Father. It was too late. I wasn't focused. I didn't have a plan. And Volkner was watching me... the first time I ever battled in front of Volkner.
Volkner was the strongest Gym Leader in Sinnoh...strong enough to join the Elite Four.
I'd barely become a Gym Leader... less than a year ago I was still earning badges.
I realized everyone was watching me. All seven Gym Leaders, including my Dad and my lover, were watching my strongest Pokemon tire itself out, thrown into battle without a plan, a battle I could win, if only...
If only I wasn't so weak.
And that's all there was to it.
I was hiding behind the Pokemon Center. I'd strapped my helmet on and pulled it down low over my eyes, like it could hide me from everyone. Inside, Nurse Joy was tending to Cranidos.
At least I knew my Dad well enough to know exactly how I'd lose. I sighed, kicking at the dirt. Right now, everyone else was packing their bags, getting ready to head back home. The weekend was over. Who knew when we'd all see each other again? But here I sat, hiding.
"Hey," said a small voice behind me. I didn't even look up.
She came to sit down next to me, hugging her knees to her chest. "Roark, don't worry about-"
"I'm not," I said quickly, still not looking at her. "I wasted my morning playing games and being emotional, and I didn't plan anything. I could have beaten him." It was true. Now that I'd had time to think, I knew how I could have won. Bastiodon was powerful, but slow and huge - an easy target. I should have let Cranidos focus his energy, then slide under Bastiodon's huge belly to headbutt its legs and underside, where its defense wasn't as strong. Instead, I'd given Cranidos no direction, so he'd continued attempting to hammer at Bastiodon's thick back and sides.
Gardenia was quiet for a long time. Maybe she wanted to ask how I could have beaten my Dad. Maybe she didn't care.
"Cranidos was impressive, staying in for so long."
"Cranidos is impressive - I'm not," I replied miserably.
"Roark..." Gardenia put a soft, tiny hand on my arm, and I resisted the urge to yank it away. "You... you figured out that I slipped your secret to Maylene."
"Yep." I bit my tongue to avoid saying anything else.
"It made you upset when you first walked in, I could see it."
"So? What kind of a trainer lets that stupid stuff affect his battles?" I sighed. "Gardenia, you don't have to apologize. If Volkner doesn't want to leave me now that he knows how mediocre I am, unable to beat a trainer who's strategies I could list in my sleep, well, eventually everyone might find out. Maybe."
Eventually meaning what? I laughed inside my own head. It'd have to be years in before every other Gym Leader knew, this I was certain of. Wouldn't Volkner be sick of me in a few years? Gardenia was staring at my angst-ridden face, biting her lip.
"Roark, don't feel so bad... you're obviously in such a bad mood, you need to cheer up..." She smiled a little. "Want to get some ice cream before we get back on the train? I don't know a single girl in the world who doesn't feel better after a big helping of ice cream. Maybe it'll help you, too."
I blinked. "Gardenia, hate to break it to you, but I'm actually not a girl."
She giggled a little, and opened her mouth as if to crack a joke, but another voice cut her off.
"Don't worry, Gardenia, I made the same mistake."
We both turned, and I felt like shrinking into myself to see Volkner standing there. I hopped to my feet.
"Volk, I - ack!"
My Dad was standing right beside him. Gardenia's head looked back and forth.
"I'm sorry... I'll see you guys later! See you, Byron!" She hurried away like a person caught in the middle of a strange and awkward situation should.
"Son..." Dad stepped forward, and I avoided his eyes. "You did really good back there. Cranidos is fast, it's amazing to see how quickly he keeps growing."
"Yeah, well." I made as if to leave, but they kept standing there, blocking my way.
"Guess you'll be heading home soon," Dad said awkwardly, moving closer to me.
"Yeah." I made as if to leave again, but my Dad's strong hand was suddenly gripping my arm. If anyone in the world could make me feel weak, it was my Dad.
"Roark, what's the matter with you? You run away from the Gym suddenly, you're trying to run away now, you didn't come to see the house once all weekend... what the hell is the matter with you, really?!"
I paused, then looked him straight in the eye. "I don't know, Dad... I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"
"Sorry, son, I don't think there's anything wrong with you. Never has been, never will be. I guess I should be asking what's wrong with me, that you keep acting like it's a horrible thing to be back in your hometown, like it's a bad thing to get a hug from your old Dad. A year ago you never would have acted this way. It's almost as if you... if you..." he was struggling to find the right words now, but what he'd said had done its magic.
A year ago you never would have acted this way...
"A year ago I wasn't trying to prove myself to everyone," I said softly, sighing. "A year ago I was happy being myself, even if I screwed up... this year, I just feel like... like I have something to prove. To you and... everyone. I feel like..." I paused... my voice had grown shaky. I swallowed back my tears and continued. "I feel like I can't be myself. Around... anybody."
Volkner was looking directly at me now, and I gave him a slightly apologetic look, willing him to understand how I was lying, and I did feel like myself around him... I just couldn't say that to my Dad.
"Roark." Dad took both my shoulders in his huge hands, and stared me down. "Listen to me... you've got nothing to prove. We've all been in your place, we know how you feel. I know... losing that battle in front of everyone, it must have been hard. I know why you feel you need to prove something... but you don't. And never, ever feel like you can't be yourself. Especially around your old Dad."
I knew it was coming, but I still felt embarrassed when my Dad gave me a bone-crushing hug. I patted his back weakly.
He let me go after a moment, and smiled. "Guess you need to get going."
"I... yeah." Whoa... for a second, I'd felt a weird urge to say something very, very stupid. I suppressed it.
"Just... call me sometimes, all right? Just remember... you can always trust me. You never have to be anything you aren't around me. Just tell me anything, son, I'm here to listen. You know that. I won't smother you... I know I did before... but I won't. So trust me. Tell me anything. Even if you get some girl pregnant or... or don't have the money for dinner because the trainers took it all on a bad day... anything."
"Okay, Dad." I felt hollow as he started to walk away. It kept jumping to my lips before I swallowed it down again. This was my Dad - I did trust him. I did love him. I realized with a jolt Volkner was behind me, waving at my Dad as he headed away. Soon we'd board a train. Who knew when I'd have this chance again? Was there a better time?
You never have to be anything you aren't around me. ... so trust me.
I felt, at that moment, like I really could. All my nightmares had left my head.
"Dad, I'm gay."
Had I really said it? Had I said it out loud? I felt numb. Oh god...why was I such a dumb ass? I must have said it out loud. I stared at my Dad. His retreating figure froze for a moment, then he turned to face me again. Volkner was behind me, but I imagined he was frozen as well.
"Son, don't say that about yourself," my Dad muttered. I stood my ground. I had to continue. No turning back. Shit.
"You don't get it, Dad, I'm gay. I like..." my resolve wavered for a split second, "guys. I like guys," I said it quickly, but the pounds of pressure that'd sat on my back for months were suddenly slipping away. I waited for the reaction. I braced myself.
Dad's expression was blank. "What about... your girlfriends...?"
"I made them up, Dad," I said softly. I felt like I might crack again. I couldn't believe this was happening. His expression grew harder to read. Was he... hurt?
"You lied to me, son?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. This is where, in my dream, I'd start yelling at him that I had no choice, that he had forced me to lie and his reaction was proof. But his reaction wasn't proof. I didn't even know his reaction yet. He just kept...standing there.
"I thought... I thought I had no choice." I gulped. "I thought... you...you'd be disappointed in me... regret having me... as a son..." my voice sounded choked, and I felt the rush of tears starting behind my eyes. I fought it.
I felt a strong hand on my shoulder, and looked up into my hairy Dad's face.
"Roark... there's a lot of things you could do to disappoint me... but even if you did them all at once, I'd never, never regret having you as a son."
I lost my battle, and a single tear slid down my cheek.
"Have you been scared to tell me this secret?"
"Yes." Three more tears slid down. Dad sighed and let me go.
"I can't say I'm surprised..." he paused. "I don't really understand... ...that."
"Being gay?" I offered, my voice soft and quiet as a mouse. Dad shrugged.
"I mean... I know the basic idea but... how do you gays give your parents grandchildren?"
I laughed, the sound a little choked from my tears. It was funny, because I knew he was serious.
"Well, now that I know I'm gay, I can get pregnant..."
"WHAT?!" Dad roared, his eyes as big as plates. Now I laughed in earnest.
"I'm kidding, Dad..."
"Oh... okay... good," he sighed. "Roark... all this time, your girlfriend in Sunyshore City..."
"Has it been... a...a...boy... a ...boyfriend? Since the start?"
"Well..." I suddenly remembered Volkner was still right behind me. Was he feeling as nervous as I was? "Actually..."
"It has been."
I think my entire chest almost exploded. That's what it felt like, anyway, as Volkner stepped in between us. Dad looked down at him, surprised.
"Volkner... oh, RIGHT!" He slapped himself on the forehead. "You live in Sunyshore! Did you know...about Roark...?"
"Yes," Volkner replied softly.
"Everyone knew... but me?" Dad looked hurt again. I grabbed his huge arm.
"No, Dad, only a few people know! It was a secret from everyone... not just you... okay?"
Dad looked right at me, with an intense look on his face. "So... a boyfriend, is it... when can I meet him?"
I started to open my mouth to reply.
Volkner held his hand out to my Dad. Looking a little confused, Dad took his hand and shook it.
"Nice to meet you, Byron," Volkner said.
Oh. my. god. Oh my god.
I almost died, right there, that instant. My dad's face was pure shock.
"WHAT?!" He screamed, jumping up. Volkner didn't even twitch. "YOU?"
"You and my son?!"
"YOU'RE the father of my future grandchildren?"
Dad slapped Volkner on the shoulder, nearly sending his little body flying. "You picked a good man, son, Volkner can take down a powerful Ground Type using only a Raichu."
"I didn't pick him because he's the strongest Gym Leader," I mumbled. I knew I was bright red - again. I couldn't believe this conversation was taking place. Not only was this conversation really happening, but my Dad wasn't hanging himself. He just looked confused.
"You didn't? Then why did you?"
"Er... lots of reasons?" I ventured. "Why did you marry mom?"
"I saw her Raticate take down a Wailord during an Elite Four battle once."
"Okay, Dad, if that's really the reason, that's probably why it didn't work out." I rolled my eyes, and saw out of the corner of them that Volkner was smirking. Dad still looked very confused.
"So... why did you pick him, then?"
"Because I'm a good kisser, Byron," Volkner replied suddenly. I whipped around, gaping at him.
Dad looked just as surprised. "Wait... you... you've... kissed each other?"
"We've done a lot more than-"
I shoved my hands over Volkner's mouth. "Dad... I really need to be getting on my train. It leaves in five minutes."
Dad seemed to snap out of it, nodding. "Well... all right... I'm glad we could talk about this, son, even if I think I might be missing something here." He scratched the back of his head.
"I think you are, too... don't think about it too much. You know the gist of it... that's all that matters." I wrapped my arms around him, squeezing him in another tight hug. I really did feel a million pounds lighter. "Thanks, Dad. I'll see you soon."
He squeezed back before I pulled away, grabbing my bag and waving. I felt like a feather. I claimed Cranidos back in the Pokemon Center before dancing out.
Had it really happened? When was I going to wake up?
I waltzed quickly towards the train station. In reality I was speed-walking, but, speed-walking? Waltzing? What's the difference? I snapped out of it slightly when a girly little hand slipped into my own.
"Where's the fire?" Volkner grunted, and I slowed my pace. In all my crazy whirlwind excitement over confessing about Volkner to my Dad, I'd forgotten about...Volkner.
"Volk!" I yelped. "I'm sorry... I was running to catch the train..."
He gripped my hand tighter, and I was slowed to a mere walking pace.
"What's the hurry? You live half an hour away by train... it's only five in the afternoon."
"Yeah but..." we were near the station, but the whistle was already blowing for final boarding before the doors closed. "I ...you need to get on this train... the next one that goes all the way to Sunyshore doesn't leave for another three hours... you wouldn't get home until midnight!"
"Well... when does the next train for Oreburgh leave?"
"Half an hour, but - oh, Volk!" I cried out in frustration as the train doors closed just as we stepped onto the platform. "Now what are you going to do!?"
"Invite myself to Oreburgh until tomorrow night?" he mumbled, grinning. I looked shocked.
"But... your Gym..."
"I'll give them a call and tell them I missed my train, won't be home for a day, shut the Gym down till Tuesday..."
I felt a warm glow, as Volkner held my arms in his hands, then started snaking them around my back. The train was pulling away now.
"You... you want to come visit Oreburgh? My place is a big mess though...I don't know if-"
"Shut up," he suggested, then helped me out by pushing his lips against mine with such force that my helmet slipped back a bit. I responded enthusiastically, wrapping my arms around him and squeezing him so tight his feet left the ground. I heard an intense giggling from somewhere above, and my eyes slipped up, watching Maylene's giggling head, stuck out a window, slowly move further away as the train pulled out. Behind her was Fantina, looking like the most shocked person in the entire world.
The train was gone, and I broke the kiss, red in the face. I opened my mouth to say something, but Volkner got there first.
"Let them. Who cares?"
"Happy to hear you say that, Volk."