Stow on Side, post battle
Hop had always been the louder, more talkative, more open person of the two of them, Gloria thought. She wondered why Hop had always been at her side, ever since they were children, how he'd drawn her out of her shell, how he'd been the loudest and brightest person to her. Maybe it was because their houses had been so close to each other in sleepy Postwick, maybe it was just meant to be. She couldn't imagine not knowing Hop, not going on this journey with him as her rival. Her true rival, because even if Marnie and Bede... Hop was still different. A rival, a best friend... maybe...
But now, looking at the boy she'd grown up with, was now battling, she only saw a pale shadow of what he was. Had Hop ever shown her a fake smile before? No, because Hop, Hop was so open, so easy to read...
Hop... Why couldn't she say anything? Beside her, she felt her Cinderace nudge her. Even Cinderace senses what's wrong, why can't I say it?
"It's not enough! I've got to try harder! And harder and harder till no one's laughing!"*
But no one was laughing at you, Hop, she wanted to say. Could she- Please, let her find her voice-
"I'm off, mate! Off to find the kind of Pokemon that I can really draw the strength out of- "
"WAIT, HOP!" Had Cinderace pushed her? Or had she really just grabbed onto Hop's arm, not wanting him to leave her with that fake smile on his face? It didn't matter. Now she'd got him to stop, even for a moment.
"...Gloria? What's wrong?" His smile, that strange smile she now hated, had disappeared and had changed into a worried frown.
How could she say what she felt? She was never as good with words, as confident as Hop or his brother.
"I know you're trying," she said softly. "I know you're trying harder than anybody." Please, she wanted to say, please smile at me like you always did before. How could she help him see what she always saw in him?
"...thanks, Gloria." He gently tugged her hand off his arm. "At least you see."
"But..." But what about Wooloo, she wanted to ask. Could she ask? "Hop, about Woo-"
He turned away quickly. "Well, it's getting late. I'll catch up with you later, Gloria!"
This time, he moved quicker, and her hand couldn't reach his arm before he dashed off.
He didn't want to look at her, she thought sadly. Couldn't her words reach him?
A week later
Maybe this could work, Hop thought. Heatmor, Snorlax... Trevenant...
Building a new team from scratch was hard, but with Rillaboom at his side and this new team... Maybe Leon...
He shook his head, hard, but he couldn't get the look on her face when he'd turned away at Stow on Side out of his mind. He was in a match, he couldn't get distracted.
He knew what she wanted to ask. Wooloo, staying at home with his family, patiently waiting for him.
No, he'd failed Wooloo, he couldn't make his team work. Wooloo, he knew his faithful Pokemon wouldn't judge him, but he couldn't keep it on his team that kept losing to Gloria, to-
He sighed. "Heatmor, use Fire Lash."
Next time, he thought determinedly, when we battle next, I never want to see that look on her face again.
That moment he'd turned away from her...
No, he couldn't even look at her, the sadness on her face, the pain in her voice.
Why did it hurt so much, that glimpse of her sadness at that moment?
A few weeks later
He knew she'd be coming on this bridge after passing through Hammerlocke, so he waited. His new team patiently waited in their Pokeballs as well for the rival of their owner to appear, one only Rillaboom had met before.
There she was. Every time he saw her, Gloria was still the same girl he'd grown up with, but with every moment now she looked more confident, more assured.
He walked over to her, noticing her surprise.
"I think you know what's coming mate, let me try my latest in a battle against you!"**
If only he was as confident as his words, he thought dimly as he pulled out his first Pokeball.
"This is rubbish... My team can't perform if I can't get my own head straight as their Trainer..."***
He didn't want to look at her again, his frustration still on his face. Still, he had to say something. "Gloria?"
"Please, wait. Please, stay."
He stopped. Gloria, who'd always had little to say was asking him again to stay. He sighed. It was getting harder and harder to refuse Gloria anything, not that he wanted to, but when she spoke so earnestly...
"Hop, please listen."
He sighed. "Okay, I'm listening."
He saw her clench the hem of her dress tightly for a moment. "I... let's go home, just for a bit. Okay?"
"We both have to continue our gym challenge," he said weakly. He didn't want to look at her. "We'll lose time if we go back to Postwick."
"Please, if our friendship means anything to you, let's just take a break. For today?"
"Okay," he said quietly, deliberately not looking at her eyes. "Are... are you going to take me to Lee? He might not be there."
She shook her head quickly. "Lee? Do you want to see him?"
"No, not really. What are we going to do?"
"Just... just, let's go home together," she said softly. "I'll tell you when we're there."
He really couldn't refuse her anything. "Okay," he said, letting her lead him back to the Corviknight taxi at the end of the bridge.
"Okay," he said once they'd arrived at Postwick. "What's your plan?"
Her voice was soft, unsure. "Can we go visit Wooloo?"
He flinched. He should have known this was coming, but- "Wooloo's probably asleep, you know it loves to sleep-"
"It's early, not to mention it'd love to see you."
He sighed. "Gloria, stop. I- I'm not ready."
"To see Wooloo?"
He nodded. "To see Wooloo. Gloria, it's different - you've been winning all this time with your Cinderace, your chosen team. I..."
"You've gotten through almost all the same gyms I have."
He sighed. "That's... true, but it's a struggle for me." The blood, sweat, and tears, working through exhaustion to work on the best moves of his partners. "Not like you-"
"It's also a struggle for me," she said earnestly. "But Hop, I know that my Pokemon are always there ready to support me! And that if we work together, everything will be fine in the end! So-"
"You struggle too?"
"...I struggle too. But Hop, I... I've known you since we were children. I know you work harder than anyone else I know-"
Except you, he thought, but he didn't interrupt.
"And I know you'll find a way to make everything work out. Maybe not as easily as Leon-" she winced, but he nodded reassuringly at her. "But you're... you're my rival. You've always been, since we started this journey together. Your Pokemon believe in you, I know they do. And I... I believe in you, even if you don't believe in yourself."
He exhaled. Had Gloria... had she always been so beautiful? This was the most he'd remembered ever hearing her say in one sitting, and these words- he'd tuck them in his heart.
"Let's go see Wooloo," he said gently, reaching for her hand. "I'm sure Wooloo's missed you too."
"Yes," she said softly, squeezing his hand in return.
Even if he'd lost again a battle to Gloria, he felt like he'd won when he'd opened the door to his house and Wooloo immediately run to him.
His head buried in Wooloo's fur, his voice was a whisper. "Thanks, Gloria."
"You're welcome, Hop." Her hand on his head made his cheeks warm, something that'd never happened before. Or had it? He wasn't sure, but now, with Wooloo in his arms and Gloria next to him... maybe there was more to life than just... someday hoping to beat Lee.
But for now... this was enough. With Wooloo at his side... he could make the best team that would fight with him until the end, with Gloria at the other side of the stadium. No, Lee... maybe both of them, in turn.
Her smile when he brings out Dubwool at their next battle in Circhester is the best thing he'd ever seen in his life.
Maybe, once this is over...
Well, first, he'd give her the best battle they'd ever had. Now, then at the Champion Cup in the future, and then...
Then, he'd ask her to stop, look at him, listen to him this time.
* Hop, after Stow on Side battle
** Hop, before Route 7 battle
*** Hop, after Route 7 battle