It's still here. Just the way Lin left it, even after twelve years.
"Guess we picked a good spot," he says, peering up at the jagged flank of the mountain between the trees. "Hello? Anyone here?"
No answer except the heavy breathing of the forest, rich with birds and bugs and the soughing of wind in leaves. The soundtrack to any summer evening in Hoenn.
"All right," he says. "Guess it's all mine."
He pushes aside the bushes – almost as tall as he is now; apparently the League isn't maintaining this stretch of wilderness – and stumbles out of the woods onto the hillside. In the sunset light, the rock face glows like a waterfall of cut carnelian, the dim, smoky bulk of Mount Chimney peeping ominously over the top. The sight must hit some buried sense memory: he looks, and instantly he's eleven again, scrambling up through the scree towards a likely-looking cleft in the rock, Belle and Zach at his side.
―C'mon, guys! Up here!
―Wait up! I'm – ah – not – uh – as fast!
Lin grimaces. He came here for the memories, but somehow he wasn't expecting them to let loose so many ghosts.
There's that gap in the rock, now completely covered by the creepers spreading across the sun-warm stone. Looks undisturbed. Maybe he and Zach were the last people to make this place their own; Lin can't imagine many kid trainers come out here. Not a lot of reason to, after all. Nothing lives out here that you can't find easier somewhere else.
He brushes the creepers aside, squints into the dark. Nobody calls out; nobody asks him what he's doing. He really is alone.
Deep breath. It's a lot, coming back. He's not sure what he'll find, or what he even hopes to find. An ending, maybe. A beginning. Or just a few less bitter thoughts than the ones that brought him here.
"Where else are you gonna go?" he asks himself, and steps inside.
Dark as hell, especially when he lets go of the creepers and they fall back over the entrance; Lin stands there for a moment, letting his eyes adjust. It doesn't really help. Never did, even when the vines were shorter. Zach put in a little wind-up light in here, ages ago in another life, but Lin doesn't remember where, exactly.
He fumbles in his pocket, flicks on his lighter and holds it up to see what's left. More than he thought, honestly: a pile of rotten blankets in the corner, fleecy with mould; a rusting steel crate alongside it; a big plastic plate up on the wall, printed with a badly faded pastoral scene of taillow and lotad.
Lin smiles, despite himself. Taillow and lotad. Zach saw that in a tourist shop in Slateport and just had to buy it, despite the fact that it cost almost as much as it would've taken to restock their supplies at the Poké Mart.
―Lin! Look, it's like Regan and Belle.
―It's like super expensive, is what it's like.
―I don't care. We gotta have it for the secret base.
Lin couldn't argue with that. Secret bases were so important, back then. You met up with another kid on their journey, you swapped base locations and boasted about the treasures you'd put in there. All garbage, of course, but that's kids for you. There's gold in every hill, if you look at it with a child's eyes.
"Let's see," he says, turning away from it to the crate. "If I remember right, then …"
There, perched on top. Covered in dust and a whip scorpion that writhes away into a crack in the wall as the light falls over it, but that's the lamp. Lin releases the lighter – gratefully; it's getting hot – and picks it up, dusting off the mechanism on his jacket.
"C'mon," he murmurs. "Please don't be broken …"
The crank almost doesn't work any more, but after a solid wrench the mechanism gives way and starts to turn. Thirty seconds of furious winding, and Lin has the bright white sodium glare in hand once again. Flickers a bit, but still. Way better than he had any right to expect.
"Would you look at that." He sets it down on a nub of rock, angled to light up as much of the cave as possible; a string of black beetles flee for the darkness beneath the blankets. "Not bad for eleven piastres."
The blankets don't look like they should be touched any more, so he kicks some rocks out the way and sits down on the other side of the crate. Stone feels dry and warm through his jeans. Not bad. For a moment, he considers grabbing his things from the apartment and hiding out here after he's evicted, but of course that's not going to work. He needs a new job; there's no way he can find one from an internetless cave out here in the middle of nowhere.
―What're you gonna do after your journey, anyhow?
―'After my journey'. Pfft. Like I'm ever stopping. Someone's gotta replace Steven Stone one day.
―You think you can take him?
―Why not? Me and Belle are the best team going, you know that.
Lin blinks. Feels the present settle back onto his shoulders, thick and heavy as a seviper's coils.
"Yeah," he murmurs. "Didn't quite work out like that, huh."
Better not to dwell on it. He shakes it off as best he can and pulls open the crate, drowning out his thoughts in the pained screech of its hinge.
Trinkets and treasures, collected up from all around the country. Some of them have lasted: here's a mermaid's purse, here's a fossil coral. Here's a four-hundred-year-old coin, real old kingdom silver, that Belle dug up from a riverbed and almost choked on. Most of the rest is dust and mould: old boat tickets and parakeet feathers, pretty leaves and tufts of fur, all enthusiastically degenerating in the midst of a thriving insectile ecosystem.
Coin's probably worth something to the right person. It feels like it'd be an insult to Zach's memory to sell it, but Lin can't really turn down ready cash right now. He grimaces – scrunches up his face – snatches it out of the mess as quickly as he can. Something black has stuck to the side, and he's just about to scrape it off on a rock when it sprouts a bunch of long spindly legs and bolts for his hand.
His hand twitches before his brain can get a say in the matter, sending the coin spinning through the air with the spider clinging on for dear life; it bounces once, hits the ground and rolls briskly out of the cave.
Lin stares for a moment. Times like this, he has to hand it to the gods: they sure do know how to deliver up a good metaphor for his entire goddamn life.
"Fucking …" He shakes his head, sighs, and levers himself up on the edge of the crate. (Mistake. He could swear he feels something crawl across his finger.) "Ugh. Okay, then."
He goes out, head down, scanning the dry earth and broken rocks for the telltale flash of silver. Once, remembering his journey in his late teens, Lin looked these coins up online once, and was amazed to see they go for a few hundred piastres. Apparently most of them were melted down a couple centuries ago, when Hoenn opened up and European money flooded in.
Can't see the stupid thing anywhere. Great. If he loses it, he just gets the guilt of betraying his old best friend, the one person in the world he ever really loved, without even the comfort of three hundred piastres to tide him over until things pick up ag―
Lin looks up sharply. He's no longer alone, it seems. There's someone else here, standing at the point where the trees give way to scree. Tall, dark-skinned, razor-sharp haircut. Septum piercing and elaborate earrings. She looks a little out of place, honestly. More at home on a stage or a film shoot than the arse end of nowhere between Rustboro and Verdanturf.
She has a pokémon too – a species Lin's never seen before, almost certainly foreign. A stocky, savage-eyed little thing whose fur looks like steel wool, glaring out at him from beneath two hooked horns. Doesn't suit her at all, but then, maybe it's a bodyguard: as Lin watches, it raises a paw and extends a handful of wicked-looking four-inch claws, evidently suspicious of his intentions.
"Sorry," says the stranger, putting a hand on the pokémon's head and easing it back a step. "I, um, wasn't expecting anyone else here."
Fluent Hoennic, but there's traces of an accent. Something European. Gods know what. Lin can identify Kaloise and German and that's it.
"It's fine," says Lin. "I was just, uh … revisiting an old hideout."
Sounds so dumb when he puts it like that. What the hell is he doing here? He should be looking for work, for a place to stay. Two weeks and he's looking at either couch-surfing or moving back in with his parents. One more casualty of the goddamn recession.
"You too?" The woman smiles. "I used to hang out here. A long time ago."
Can't be that long. She's clearly been in Hoenn long enough to get the language, but she looks younger than Lin; there's not that much scope for 'a long time ago' in a life that short. He imagines this woman stumbling into his old cave as a teenager, a smaller version of that metal cat bounding along at her heels. Seeing all his and Zach's paltry treasures piled up here, but refusing to touch. Trying to keep the magic of finding it alive.
"Yeah, I had a secret base here," he says. "Back on my trainer journey. Me and my best friend, we …" Were inseparable? Had an incredible eighteen months travelling, and an ardent friendship for the next three years when we returned to Rustboro? No. Lin's not even brave enough to remember this himself, let alone narrate it to some random stranger. "I dunno. I guess I just wanted to remember what that was like." He sighs, goes through his pockets. "Doesn't really matter, anyway," he says, pulling out an almost empty pack of Black Dustox. "I should go."
"Are you sure?" says the woman. There's an expression on her face. Hard to say what it is, but Lin thinks it might be concern. "But, um, I thought you dropped something. I saw it roll out the cave."
Right, the coin. How much is that really going to help? Honestly, Lin just needs to swallow his pride and admit he fucked up. Go home. Start packing up his stuff. Call Mum and Dad and say, well, I'm out of money and nobody's hiring.
Still. He can't come here, throw away his and Zach's old treasures and then walk away. He owes their friendship that much.
"Yeah," he says. "Uh, a coin. One of the old ones."
"Oh, you're in luck." The woman nudges her pokémon. "Aglæcwif here can help with that. Perrserker are part of the meowth family, so you know. No hiding coins from her."
Aglæcwif's ears prick up. Evidently she recognises the word.
"I see," says Lin, at a loss. "Uh … thanks?"
The woman grins.
"No problem," she says. "Aggie? Coin out here, if you can find it."
Aglæcwif growls quietly to herself, claws retracting into paws that seem too small to contain them, and drops to all fours to start scuffing around in the scree.
"She's really good at this," says the woman. "Never lose change with her around."
Lin has no idea how to respond. This was never a place where he expected to find other people, let alone supermodels with giant warrior meowth.
"Okay," he says. "Thanks." Pause. Should he …? "I'm, uh, Lin."
"Lin," repeats the woman, like this is important information. "Nice to meet you. I'm Cleo. Ze/hir."
Shit. Right. As someone who's spent his whole life in Verdanturf, Lin has never actually met a nonbinary person before. He feels ashamed to have assumed, though he's realistic enough to admit there was no way he could've anticipated this.
"Nice to meet you," he says. "Uh … he/him."
Cleo smiles. It's a really nice smile. Maybe it was worth coming out here after all, just for that.
"Sweet," ze says. "Won't take a moment." Ze nods at the pack of cigarettes. "Are you gonna offer me one of those?"
"Huh?" Ze wants to hang around and talk to him? No accounting for taste, but Lin's not gonna turn it down. "Oh, uh … sure. Think I got two left."
He does. Last two. Cleo climbs up the slope and sits down with him, back to the rock face. Looking down at Aglæcwif pawing through the dirt and the unspoiled woodland beyond, stretching out endlessly over the hills of central Hoenn.
"You can't get this brand abroad," says Cleo, inspecting the tip of hir cigarette. "Hoenn only."
"I noticed the accent."
Ze raises an eyebrow, hir smile turning rueful.
"Yeah, I'm relearning Hoennic. My family's from here, but I live in Galar. Lived. I've moved back here now."
―Sorry, Lin. I guess … I guess I just have to go.
―Will you write to me?
―Yeah. Yeah, of course.
But he never did. Not even once. And Lin's heart snapped clean in two.
He keeps his face carefully blank. Blows a plume of smoke out over Aglæcwif's horned head.
"People usually move the other way," he says. "All the money's overseas."
"There's like, some," ze answers. "I got offered a part in a movie here. Hoping it'll turn into more."
"You're an actress?"
"Actor," ze corrects. No malice in it, but Lin gets the sense that the phrasing matters a lot to hir. "Yeah. Way less competition in Slateport than LA or Pinewood."
Aglæcwif meows – a generous description; it's halfway to a Metal Sound, all throaty and metallic – and rises back onto her hind legs, spitting silver into her palm.
"Hey!" says Cleo, holding out hir hand for the coin. "Atta girl. Look at this. Old school."
Ze turns it over in hir hand, admiring the head of whatever cut-price warlord minted it, then hands it over. Might just be that Lin's a dork who hasn't dated in too long, but the touch of hir fingers against his sends a little frisson of excitement down the nerves of his wrist.
"Pretty cool," ze says. "Where'd you get it?"
"On my journey." Lin flips it round his knuckles, watching it wink in the sun. (Almost drops it, too; this thing is much heavier than the piastres he learned the trick with.) "I had a lotad who dug it out of a riverbed. She liked shiny things."
"Aw, I love lotad. Those little legs." Cleo wiggles hir fingers. "You didn't keep her?"
―Hi! Here for the new starter catching sessions?
―No need to be nervous! You're with Sam today – she'll see you right. There's plenty out there in these woods looking to partner with people.
"I did," says Lin. "She, uh … lotad are slow on land. Cars aren't."
"Aw, no," ze says, real feeling in hir voice. "I'm so sorry."
Lin shrugs, takes a long drag on his cigarette. When he speaks, there is no tremble in his voice, and no way for Cleo to tell that it only happened last year.
"'S okay," he says. "You didn't know. But, uh, thanks, though. Really."
Ze smiles. Sweet and sad. Like someone who really gets it. All right, ze's an actor, so maybe it means nothing, but even if ze's just going through the motions, it's more than Lin's encountered in a long time.
This kindness. The late sunlight, the zithering of crickets and nincada. A good smoke and good company. Feels like this could be Zach's final gift. One last treasure hidden in the old secret base.
"Tell me about this place," says Cleo, after a few slow, sun-drenched minutes. "You said you made the base with your friend?"
"Yeah. There was this Secret Power TM being passed around at the Pokémon Centre, so when it came round my way, I taught it to my lotad. We spent forever looking for the perfect spot, somewhere nobody would ever find us. Though I guess someone did, in the end."
He gestures at hir with his cigarette, which seems to alarm Aglæcwif; she whips out her switchblade claws again, only for Cleo to roll hir eyes and pull her firmly away into hir lap, where she settles down grumpily to bat at passing insects.
"Sorry about her," ze says. "Galish meowth are like that – think everything's a fight. One time I was on a date and she nearly cut the poor guy's face open. He, uh. Did not call me back."
"Wow." Lin gives Aglæcwif a wary look; she glares back with her evil orange eyes. "Noted. No sudden movements, then."
Cleo laughs, smoky white plumes trailing from hir nose and mouth.
"Don't worry," ze says. "She's a bit better behaved these days." Ze runs hir fingers through Aglæcwif's fur, teasing out a little purr from deep within her chest. Looks like it hurts; hir fingers are covered in little scratches. But people put up with all kinds of minor injuries from their partners. Lin's boss (former boss, now) has a ton of tiny burn scars from his camerupt. "You're a sweetheart, ain'tcha? Yeah, you are."
Aglæcwif purrs again and squidges herself down into a steely little loaf. Lin has to admit: kinda cute.
"So," says Cleo, scritching around beneath the huge fluff of Aglæcwif's neck. "Tell me about your friend who you built this place with. Guessing you're not in touch any more?"
Too defensive; he winces to hear himself. But Cleo doesn't seem to mind.
"What you said. Trying to remember 'em."
"Oh. Right." Lin raises his eyebrows. Feels them sag back down again, as inevitable as falling rain. "His dad got a job abroad a few years later. Moved the whole family away. I really hoped we'd stay in touch, but … didn't work out. Sent him a few messages, but he never wrote back." He scowls. "Sorry, I dunno why I'm telling you all this. Known you five minutes and I'm spilling my life story."
"Hey, I'm interested. Like what're the odds that I'd come back to see if this old secret base was still here the same day the guy who made it turns up? Two people have the same secret base, well. That's like a sacred bond or something."
"Heh." Lin's cigarette is almost out. He's not sure should be spending twenty-five piastres on a new pack, either. Might be time to quit and regain the ability to walk upstairs without losing his breath. "I guess it kind of is. This guy, Zach, I definitely thought we had a bond." Should he …? Well, why not? He's never admitted this to anyone before, but he can't imagine Cleo will judge him for it. And it will probably do him good to get it off his chest. "Looking back," he says, heart suddenly starting to race, "I think maybe I just had a crush on him. He was sweet. And handsome."
No answer. Lin swallows. Risks a quick look up from the forest to see Cleo staring at him intently, hir forgotten cigarette burnt right down to a long finger of ash.
"Maybe Zach had a crush on you too," ze says. "And he just didn't know how you'd feel about it."
Lin wrinkles his nose.
"Nah, I dunno about that. You'da thought he'd stay in touch if he did."
Cleo's hand is shaking a little. The ash falls; Aglæcwif leaps out of Cleo's lap and smashes it into the ground with one paw.
"No, Lin, you're not … I mean, maybe Zach had a crush on you too."
Lin stares, puzzled. And then his cigarette slips from his fingers and tumbles down the hill.
Cleo smiles nervously.
"Hi, Lin," ze says. "You know, that beard really suits you."
"Holy shit." Lin can't even think. This is – and Cleo is – and Zach is … "How is this … it's really you?"
"Yeah." Ze lifts the shoulder of hir tunic to show a little tattooed bird, fork-tailed and sharp-eyed. "Hoennic taillow get sick in cold climates, so I couldn't take Regan with me, but here she is. Like if you needed proof."
Lin doesn't. He can see it, now he's looking: those deep brown eyes, that little scar on hir forehead where ze whacked it on a ladder when ze was twelve. The bow of hir lips. Gods above, he spent long enough staring at that face; how could he not have noticed it again here?
"It's you," he says, staring like he could burn hir onto his retinas if he only looked long enough. "Gods, Za― uh, sorry, I … I mean … why didn't you say?"
Ze smiles sheepishly, flicking hir cigarette away so ze can take his hand. Aglæcwif instantly turns to glare, but Lin's feeling that frisson again, this time going all the way down to the bone, and he can't even find it in himself to be worried that she'll take out his eye.
"I got scared," says Cleo. "And then it had been nearly two years, and I didn't know how to reopen that wound. I thought maybe you wouldn't wanna talk to to me any more. Not my finest hour." Ze sighs. "I got back last week and wanted to see this place again. Then I saw you here and I just … froze. That's why it took me like ten minutes to work up the courage to come clean."
"I mean." Lin shakes his head. He still can't believe it. He does believe it, more than he believes any of the shit that's come his way in the last few years, but he can't believe it. "All those questions. You just wanted to know if I liked you?"
"More like I couldn't let you walk away." Ze makes a side-to-side motion of hir head. "I didn't realise it was you till you said it was your base. After that, I just needed to keep you talking till I got the guts to tell you. I actually don't even smoke."
"I'm glad you did. Like so much." It all sounds so clichéd in his mouth, but he's got nothing else. It's true, at least. If that counts for anything. "I just … you really had a crush on me?"
"Yeah," ze says. "You really had a crush on me?"
Lin's turn to be embarrassed. Cheeks burning so hot he could probably light a cigarette on them, if he had any left.
"Well," he mutters thickly. "I guess so."
"Gods. We're such dumbasses."
They really are. And something about the sheer childish idiocy of it means that even now, rattling around in the dregs of his wasted youth with an evil knife cat looking at him like she wants to put some holes in his face, Lin can't help but laugh.
"Yeah," he wheezes. "Yeah, we are."
The look on Cleo's face takes what remains of his breath away. All lit up like Regan and Belle just scurried on out of the past to complete the reunion.
"Guess that's why we can't escape each other," ze says.
"Yeah. Maybe." He can't stop grinning. "Hey, you wanna have a look in the base? Fair warning, it's sorta depressing. Everything's really just rotted away in there."
"I think I wanna see," ze replies. "Then maybe we can go back to town. Get a drink or something and catch up properly."
There's a slight emphasis on properly that stops Lin's heart for a second. Does ze mean …?
"Oh," he says. "Uh … yeah?"
Hir eyes flash. Yes. Ze means.
"Yeah," ze says. "I mean. If you want."
"Huh." He's sure it doesn't cover his awkwardness, but he has to look away and rub his cheek all the same. "I definitely do want. But, uh … I mean I should say, I'm not exactly … doing great."
Cleo squeezes his hand a little tighter.
"Who is?" ze asks. "It's all right. We can deal."
"You don't even know what the problem is. Are. There's, uh. A few."
"So tell me," ze says. "And I'll help."
"It's been twelve years …"
"… of me daydreaming about my old friend Lin," ze finishes. "You're not gonna talk me outta this."
"Right. Sorry. I don't mean to. I just … yeah." What. Is. He. Doing. This is the best thing that's ever happened to him and he's trying to sabotage it? "I think I better shut up before my nerves screw me over completely."
Aglæcwif, who has so far been content to stand back and glare, chooses this moment to stalk over and sit emphatically on hir lap.
"Aggie, c'mon." Cleo scratches the nape of her neck. "She'll relax, promise. She just gets possessive when I meet new people. Which you aren't. But you are to her." Ze sighs, lifts her off onto the rocks. "Well, Lin. Shall we …?"
"Yeah," he says. "Let's."
They have to let go of each other's hands to stand up and turn to face the cave – though only for a moment before their fingers find one another again. Lin's aware of how dorky the two of them are being, but he just can't care. It's Zach. Except not, except better, because now ze is what ze must have always been, on some deep and cryptic level, and―
Cleo kisses him on the cheek, and all his thoughts scatter like startled fish across a pond.
"Promised myself I'd do that if I ever saw you again," ze says. "I, uh, hope that's okay."
"Mm," he mumbles, trying to unglue his tongue from his back teeth. "Yeah. Yeah, that's … that's pretty okay."
"Glad to hear it," ze says. "Maybe later we can do it again."
"Not gonna lie, I can see the advantages." He pulls back the creepers to reveal the flickering white glow of the wind-up lamp. "After you."
"Such a gentleman," says Cleo, flashing him that heart-stopping smile. "When you go trampling over the remnants of your childhood, you do it with class."
Lin's still out of work, still unable to afford his flat. But goddamn, for the first time in a while, he's got a smile on his face.
"That's me," he says. "I'm a class act, Cleo."
"I always wondered how my name would sound when you said it."
"Worth the wait?"
"Worth the wait." Ze nods at the cave mouth. "C'mon, then."
Ze steps through, Aglæcwif darting in quickly after hir. Lin hovers at the entrance for just a moment, watching the way the light falls across hir back and kicking himself for missing the last nine years.
Maybe it doesn't matter. There's no going back, no undoing what's been done. But inside that cave is a shot at what might be, and Lin is damned if he's going to let it pass him by.
"Like a goddamn fairy tale," he mutters, and lets the creepers fall behind him.