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That Sign Can't Stop Me Because I Can't Read

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“Hop, pet, if you don’t eat your cornflakes, you are going to keel over on that pitch before it’s even lunchtime.”

You do Not care. You do Not care about your cornflakes. How can you even think about something like cornflakes when finally the day circled on your calendar in thick red marker - the day you’ve been counting down and crossing off to - is here.

Today, you’re going to Rose Stadium with Lee. And nothing can ruin this day.

Not even when you hear the telltale caw of the Flying Taxi and go bolting outside, tripping over your feet in excitement to finally hug your brother after– what, one month? Two?– only to be met with a lady in sunglasses and sports clothes; the uniform for League employees. She looks friendly, and she smiles and waves you over– you just wish she wasn’t standing where Lee should be standing.

“Your brother’s been held up at a press conference with the Chairman,” she explains kindly, squatting down to meet your eyes. “He really wanted to come get you himself, but he thought it more important that you get the most out of your day and get to the stadium as soon as possible.”

You nod along attentively, and it isn’t long until your usual enthusiasm is blazing in your eyes again– you’ll see Lee when you get there. This is still beyond cool; a real life member of the Pokemon League, here to take you to Wyndon!

You hug your mam goodbye, half-registering something she says about not getting so excited that you chuck up, like the last time you got to see Lee– but your brain’s already buzzing with thoughts of the day ahead, meeting Gym Leaders and huge, fearsome Pokemon– and most importantly, spending the day with your brother.

You bounce in your seat for almost the entire journey. Miss League Lady comments on how impressive your energy is for this time of the morning, and how excited you must be. You go a bit pink, knowing that it’s something of a running problem for you; but at least she doesn’t say ‘deek at yer, charver, lowpin’ all ower t’parish like a hooligan,’ like Granddad does. Which is basically old-person-Postwick-speak for ‘stop bouncing around, it’s annoying me’. You hate when he does that. After all, what are you but a young man of the opinion that there is a lot in life to be excited for? Especially on a day like today.

That excitement doesn’t wane, even when you’re told Leon still isn’t quite ready to meet you when you arrive. Even when fifteen minutes swinging your legs on a chair that’s too big for you in the foyer turns to half an hour, which then turns into an hour. Miss League Staff Member takes you out to see the pitch– an offer which, any other time, would have you bouncing on the ceiling– but you’re starting to worry about just what’s happening in this meeting. You express as much– your chaperone just chuckles and tells you it’s nothing little people would understand, or indeed find interesting. She seems to think she’s doing you a favour, but you don’t much like her answer. Lee’s always saying how boring the meetings he’s dragged into are; he could be being bored to death as you speak! And nobody’s even worried about it!

Lucky for Lee, you aren’t like anyone else; especially not these grownups! You inform the lady that you’re going to the loo, and pelt off before she can answer. Best strategy is to get out of sight fast, you reckon– and you don’t have to search for your exit too long. There’s a door at the side of the entrance to the pitch! There’s some kind of sign on it, but the writing is too small for you to read, so you throw caution to the wind and careen on through.

When you do, you meet the startled eyes of someone who looks a lot older than you, but a lot younger than most of the grownups here, with a shock of unruly black and white hair. You seem to have caught him in the middle of fighting with a scary-looking boot.

“Er. You lost, little’un?”

He looks scary; but he talks weird! You giggle, and shake your head, clasping your hands behind your back.

“Nah! I’m hiding! Oh no, no– I’m searching!” you explain proudly. The old-but-not-old boy quirks an eyebrow as he stops fiddling with his shoe to point at you.

“You’re Leon’s brother, aintcha?”

“Yeah!! He’s my big brother!” You nod fast enough to make your head hurt, and jab a thumb proudly into your chest. “I’m Hop! I’m six. How old are you?”

The boy doesn’t smile, but he does laugh a bit. You wonder how he does that; you always smile when you laugh.

“Fifteen. ‘N’ my name’s Piers. Just in case that’s what you were gonna ask next.”

“Oh!!” How did he know that was exactly what you were going to ask!? “Yeah, Piers! I’ve seen you on telly, I think. I watch all Lee’s matches.”

“Mm, maybe. Might wanna pay more attention to watchin’ the sign on the door, next time. You know this is a Gym Leader’s changing room, yeah?”

“Oh. I didn’t look at the sign. It was really small. And I can’t really read anyway, actually.”

Your forthrightness draws a scoff from the boy– Piers– who leans an elbow on his bag as he looks down at you from the bench.

“Gutsy. ‘Fraid your brother ain’t in here, though. He went off with the Chairman a while ago.” His nose seems to wrinkle when he says chair-man. You don’t even know what that is. But it doesn’t really matter right now.

“Oh… yeah. I only thought he maybe would be. I don’t know where he meets the chair-man. And no one will tell me about it.” You scuff the toe of your trainer against the floor. “I think it’s ‘cos I’m six. They say I’m too little to get it.”

Piers does smile a little at that, but he kind of frowns at the same time, too.

“Tch. Just ‘cos you’re six dun’t mean you ain’t got a brain in yer noggin’.”

“Yeah! Granddad says it only works doing one thing at a time, though. That’s why I’m not allowed to talk when I’m eating– ‘cos I talk too much and chuck up sometimes. Um, how come you talk like that?”

Piers looks a bit surprised at the sudden change in conversation, and does that snorty laugh again.

“Like what? I’m speakin’ Galarian, ain’t I?”

“Yeah, but… I don’t say dun’t.”

“Well, you were probably raised good and proper, Hop-who’s-six. Unfortunately for you, this how everyone talks where I’m from.”

You go a little pink; you hadn’t meant to be rude! Although Piers doesn’t look too angry.

“Nah!!” you insist, quickly hoping to rectify your offense. “My granny and granddad talk funny too, not just you! They say it’s how everyone used to talk in Postwick. It’s bonkers!”

Piers just gives you a loosely affirmative grunt, his attention having at some point returned to his boots and their many buckles.

“How come your shoes’ve got so many bits?”

Piers goes still and doesn’t move for a minute– except in the shoulders as he heaves a sigh– but he eventually does look up, making that funny face again that’s like he’s kind of smiling but trying not to smile.

“I dunno. ‘Cos I like bits. You always ask this many questions?”

You nod eagerly.

“Mhm!! Sometimes. Can I touch them?”

“Be my guest,” Piers says, and tosses the boot he hasn’t yet wrestled onto his foot in your general direction. You marvel at how shiny said ‘bits’ are up close and run your fingers over them rapidly, giggling as they knock together with chorus of satisfying clinks. Then you decide to take your investigation to the next level, rising from where you’d knelt to examine it and eagerly kicking one of your trainers off with the toe of the other (otherwise known as the way that makes Mam shout at you; but Mam isn’t here!) and pull Piers’ far-too-big boot on with relative ease. You take an experimental step and immediately stumble, your arms flying out to steady you.

“They’re so big!” you marvel, and you take a few more, your whole body lolling as your weight sways from your tattered little trainer to the ill-fitting platform boot, loose buckles jangling away all the while.

“I think most people wear both of ‘em at once. Which I’d quite like to, if y’don’t mind.”

You don’t; you’ve had enough of this experiement for now! It was making your feet hurt. So you pull the shoe off more carefully than you had your own, tottering over and handing it back to Piers– but not before thrusting a finger excitedly in his face, only narrowly avoiding jabbing his eye out.

“You’ve got bits in your face too!”

“Said I liked ‘em, didn’t I?” he replies calmly enough, though he does look like he’s still recovering from narrowly avoiding being blinded. You keep meaning to learn how to stop doing that to people.

There you are!”

Another voice cuts in suddenly from the doorway, and you whip round like you’ve been caught with your hand in the cookie jar. It’s your chaperone. Eugh! She doesn’t look furious, but there’s certainly a flash of a frazzled look on her face before it gives way to something baffled as she clocks your abandoned shoe.

“I thought you were going to the toilet! I’m ever so sorry, Piers, I hope he didn’t disturb you. I think he’s just a little upset to be waiting so long for his brother.”

She keeps on talking - really fast - but you’ve already tuned out, embarrassment flaring in the pit of your stomach. You hadn’t meant to bother Piers; but he hadn’t said he didn’t want to talk to you! You don’t mean to be too much, or make people dizzy, or ask lots of questions. But that seems to be all grownups think of you. Well, you have a gripe of your own; you really wish they would stop talking about you like you aren’t in the room! The League lady is still making excuses for you and your eyes start to sting. You don’t want to have to go back to sitting around with a grownup who thinks you bother people. You just want to be with Lee. Like everyone said you were going to.

“Come on, Hop,” the lady coaxes gently, holding out her hand. “Say bye-bye to Piers. We might be best to drop you off in the crèche, and you can… erm, do some drawing, maybe. Would you like that?”

You most certainly would not. Still, you want to show that your manners are good, and meet Piers’ eyes to say goodbye; unfortunately, you’re going to have to stop your lip trembling first.

“Uh– I was gonna say,” Piers calls over your head to Miss League Lady, “that Chairman Rose said he was comin’ in our meeting. Said it might be nice for me to show him ‘round the Gym Leader’s lounge ‘n’ introduce him to them. I-If anyone’s free. Y’know, since I already look after Marnie, ‘n’ that…”

Your chaperone looks surprised, and a little bit like she doesn’t think that sounds quite right. But you don’t think she wanted to take you to the crèche very much, because she nods after a few moments of thought.

“Alright. I suppose you do know what you’re doing. Make sure you say thank you, Hop.”

You start beaming as you watch her go, and you quickly blink the tears out of your eyes and turn back to Piers.

“Really!? Are we really going to meet real Gym Leaders!?”

You’re jigging in place before you can stop yourself, and Piers laughs, finally pulling on his other boot.

“I mean, s’better than sittin’ about in the bloody crèche all day, right?”

Your jaw hits the floor. Granddad gets proper told off by Mam and Granny when he says that word.

“You’re not allowed to say that!!” you gasp, staring at Piers in total awe as he finally gets to his feet– and shoots you a grin.

“I can say what I want,” he says proudly, though he hesitates as a thought seems to hit him. “Just, uh. Maybe don’t repeat it all in front of that granddad of yours. You wanna head?”

Piers jabs a thumb in the direction of the door and you give a bright nod, which he returns and holds out his hand. He quickly frowns, though, and withdraws it a little before you can take it.

“Sorry, that’s– Marnie’s always clingin’ to me like a little Cradily. Won’t move a muscle if I ain’t holdin’ her hand. Force of habit at this stage.”

“That’s OK. I kind of…” A stab of sadness hits you in the gut, the way it does when you think about playing along Route 1 with Leon, chasing around the fields and rolling down the hills with the Wooloo - all the stuff you don’t get to do anymore - and, hoping it’s still OK, you reach up and take Piers’ hand. “I miss holding Lee’s hand.”

Piers gives you a little smile and gives your hand a squeeze, and as the pair of you start walking, you think this will do quite nicely until Leon’s here. It’s not the same; but it’s nice.

“I… I love him being Champion. It’s wicked. He’s so cool, and– a-and I wanna be just like him someday. But it–”

You pause. Take a deep, shuddering breath.

“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I have a brother anymore.”

The statement hangs heavy in the air between you.

“N-Not like he’s not my brother, ‘cos he is, and h-he’s the best brother ever, but like… like–” A gasp wracks your body, prompting Piers to slow your collective walk to a halt– and before you’ve even realised it, you’ve started to sniffle. “S-Sometimes it’s just like– like he’s gone!!”

There’s an insightfulness to your thoughts; but you are too little and distraught to see it as your face scrunches up and squeezes tears from your eyes and you begin to bawl. Piers leans away for just a moment and you hear what sounds like the click of a lock, then he’s back by your side, gathering you into his arms and holding you tight.

“I know. I know.”

You feel like such a stupid baby. You wail into the shoulder of his jacket, crushed between the thoughts of what a silly little kid he must think you are, crying like Leon’s dead when you are six and you are clever for your age and you know he’s not but that doesn’t stop you feeling sad; and the pure grief that’s coursing through you, how sick you are of trying to pretend like it doesn’t feel like your brother’s evaporated, been carried off in the wind like a handful of sand.

“I k-know he’s not gone,” you manage after a while; after your sobbing’s started to slow to the occasional sniffle and hiccup. “I still get to see him on the telly. I like that more than not seeing him.”

Piers hums in agreement as you mumble into his shoulder.

“I know it ain’t the same, though. Probably feels like he looks different every time y’see him.”

“Yeah… he does.”

Piers sighs, leaning back against the wall to stabilise the pair of you better and gently rubbing your back.

“He’s strong, your brother. I don’t think I could be away from Mar that long. But just ‘cos he’s away… it dun’t mean he ain’t missin’ you. I’d bet he misses you every day.”

You nod slowly, comforted enough by the thought to no longer feel quite so ashamed at your outburst. You finally withdraw your face from Piers’ shoulder, looking up at him with still-bleary eyes.

“Is Marnie…?”

“My sister,” Piers supplies with a smile, digging around in his kit bag for a packet of tissues and yanking one from the pack with his teeth, wiping at your weepy eyes and nose with it. “She’s five, so… not too far off you, but she’s a lot more shy. Blow.”

He tacks the command onto the end of the sentence just like Mam does, moving the tissue to your nose. You manage a little smile when you end up sounding a bit like a trumpet.

“When did you learn to be a mum?” you ask as Piers tosses the tissue into a bin a few metres away, making him turn back in surprise, but eventually fix you with a smile.

“I’m Mum and Dad to Marnie. So I guess about two years ago.”

“What!? That’s wicked!!” Your eyes are wide with the revelation that this is even possible, and Piers laughs quietly, in a way that you’ll learn in years to come meant he was touched by your acceptance and grateful you didn’t ask any questions. For now, though, you’re a nearly-done-sniffling six year old with a slightly bruised heart that soars when Piers says “let’s go and meet some Gym Leaders, eh?”

You head to the Gym Leaders’ lounge after you and Piers drop into the canteen, where you have a cheese sandwich on proper fancy bread, and Piers gives you his pudding as well as yours; so you’re in much better spirits when the time comes to meet the Gym Leaders. They are, as expected, beyond cool. You meet Kabu, who looks kind of scary, but gives you a pat on the head when you say goodbye, and Ms. Opal, who starts advancing on you with a fancy pen and a piece of paper covered in questions and boxes as soon as you’ve said your name. Piers is quick to march you away, grumbling something about stupid bleedin' quizzes– but you’d thought her big hat was nice, at least. He takes you back onto the pitch, now occupied by a girl with pretty black hair in lots of braids (and one of them is blue!) and a boy with lots of freckles who never seems to stop smiling, even when the girl’s Chewtle spews a jet of water right over his Gloom’s head and onto his uniform. Piers calls out to them and, on seeing they have an audience, the pair decide to have a full-fledged battle. You even get to see the girl– Nessa, Piers tells you– Dynamax her Chewtle!

It’d been a far cry from seeing it through your TV screen, and you talk Piers’ ear off about it all the way back inside, swinging your clasped hands and absolutely buzzing. So much so that it takes Piers physically reaching down and turning your head to see what’s right in front of you.

“LEE–!”

You catapult yourself into your brother’s arms without hesitation - which is, it seems, a little alarming for him, given that he appears not to have spotted you - but the moment your eyes meet, his go just as wide as yours.

“Hop!! There you are!” You bury your face in his abdomen and he laughs and hoists you up proper, picking you up clean off the ground like always used to. He smells of grass and posh soaps, but still of Leon. Still like he always has; even if it’s harder to smell now.

“You must be young Hop,” an amused voice says, and you lift your head to find it’s source; which you quickly recognise as the chair-man. He always announces the matches. He smells like flowers, and looks down at you with a smile. “I am sorry for stealing away your brother for so long; you must be rather cross with me.”

He keeps smiling, and it makes you wonder if he really is sorry.

“We unfortunately do still have a spot of business to take care of. Shouldn’t be long, just a standard sponsorship deal.”

You barely understand any of what he’s saying, but you know it means another long wait. You look up at Leon and he gives you a sad look, like he’s saying sorry, but he puts you down nonetheless. You feel like Nessa’s Dynamax Chewtle is stamping on your chest.

“I’ll… try to be really quick, Hop. Promise.”

You want to believe him. You know he’ll try. But you’ve already waited so long, and–

“Chairman?” Piers’ voice cuts in. The chair-man glances over, and you see that look in his eyes where a grownup’s trying to pretend they’re not cross.

“Piers, you’re still here. What is it?”

“I, uh… was waitin’ to apologise for my behaviour in our meetin’.” Piers hangs his head, and the chair-man quirks an eyebrow. “I know y’just want what’s best for me. And the gym. And I know we can’t have a proper talk about the… Power Spot business if I keep actin’ up. I wanted to… know if we could try again. Only I ain’t got long, I gotta get home to Marnie, and that, s–”

“Alright, Piers. Alright. We’ll talk about it. My office.” The chair-man looks away from a very contrite Piers and over to Leon. “I won’t be long.”

You stare up at Piers, worried that he’s made himself sad, or that the chair-man’s made him sad– you can’t really tell which. He seems to feel your eyes on him, because he tilts his head from where it had been bowed, just enough to briefly meet Leon’s eyes, and then yours. His lips quirk into a smile, and he gives you a lightning-fast wink– before pasting the glum expression back onto his face and slinking off after the chair-man, leaving you and your brother alone.

“…why do they call him a chair-man anyway? I think he just looks like a man.”

Leon bursts out laughing and kneels beside you, pulling you in for a long hug. When he lets go, his eyes are dancing with mischief.

“Hey… do you want to get out of here? I bet we can see the Wyndon Eye and have some ice cream before Piers and Chairman Rose are done having their shouting match.”

You think about reminding him that the chair-man had said that he wasn’t going to be long– but the wolfish grin spreading slowly across his face makes you feel like he already knows that.

So you match it, and you take his hand. Finally.