When Gladion came upon Ash with a hand on Lugia's neck on some deserted Melemele beach three hours after sunset, it took him a good three minutes to remember that he should be surprised. In that time, Pikachu climbed down from Lugia’s back, an entire flock of wingull flew by, and Ash turned around and noticed him.
"Oh, alola, Gladion!" He waved. "Hey, have you met Lugia?"
That was about when Gladion’s brain started working and realized that that was a legendary pokemon Ash had his hand on all casual. Another legendary pokemon.
No, Gladion had not met Lugia.
Luckily, Ash took his silence as a negative, and made a wide gesture towards Gladion. There was silver in his hair, reflected off the moon. “Lugia, that’s Gladion! He’s super cool and super strong, and he has a lycanroc, and an umbreon, and Silvally!”
I see, said Lugia in a smooth telepathic voice, and Gladion, who had been busy trying not to feel complimented by Ash’s praise, had to fight the instinct to jump.
Ash gestured again, and Gladion felt his attention drawn right back to the fact that Ash had a hand all casual on the neck of a legendary pokemon that he hadn’t raised through two evolutions. Gladion could accept, to a degree, Ash’s involvement with Alola’s legends — the Tapu were known to be capricious and curious lot, and Ash had, grumpy as it made Gladion to admit, been essentially the ideal choice to raise Nebby.
“Gladion, this is Lugia! It’s from Shamouti Island and it’s super amazing and can fight Articuno and Zapdos and Moltres all at once!”
This wasn’t an Alolan legend, though, or a deity of the sun and moon appearing in a dream. This was a pokemon of the depths of the sea, rumored to be fierce and antisocial and devastatingly powerful.
But Gladion had imperturbability down to a science, so he kept his face flat and said, “Alola. Good to meet you.”
You as well, said Lugia, and then it turned back to Ash. Thank you for your aid, Chosen One.
…the scientific method accounted for failure in the experimental stage, okay.
“No problem!” said Ash. “It was fun to go flying again. Pikachu, you agree, right?”
“Pika pika!” said Pikachu, ensconced as usual on Ash's shoulder.
Lugia nodded at them both, a graceful motion. I am glad to hear it. It tensed its body and took off on an updraft so perfectly timed Gladion suspected it had created it. Farewell.
Ash waved. “Bye, Lugia! Say hi to Carol and Melody for me!”
And then, a fading silver silhouette against the rising moon, it shone, arced up high into the air, dove like an arrow into the ocean, and was gone without even a splash to mark its passing.
“Well, that went well!” said Ash. “Much better than last time Lugia asked for help, right, Pikachu?”
“Piiiii -ka,” commented Pikachu, very dryly.
“What,” said Gladion again.
“Oh, Gladion, you're still here!” said Ash. He came up the beach towards Gladion, and without Lugia there, its footprints already smoothing out under the tide, he looked as normal and unassuming as he ever had. As normal and unassuming as he’d looked showing up out of nowhere with an infant Ultra Beast, as when they’d first met and Gladion had concluded he was a promising trainer, if immature and inexperienced.
The silver was gone from his hair. Maybe it had been reflecting off Lugia and not the moon after all — it was so difficult to wrap his brain around the fact that Lugia had been there at all, had called Ash Chosen One like an established title.
“You never answered my question,” said Gladion, when Ash was close enough for conversation.
Ash tilted his head to the side, and Pikachu imitated him without looking. They looked obnoxiously baffled. “What question?”
The question from three weeks ago, he almost said, before he realized he was being ridiculous.
Then he said it anyways, because there really was no other way to ask. “What I asked you three weeks ago. About—” He waved a hand. “When you showed up with… Nebby. You challenged me to a pokemon battle instead.” Gladion paused. “Which was enlightening in its own way, but didn’t actually give me any answers.”
Ash sighed through his teeth, then flopped to sitting as Pikachu shouted and tried to hold on. His feet were pointed out towards the ocean, and the heels of his hands dug into the sand, and he wasn’t looking at Gladion.
Gladion took the prompt for what it was and sat down next to him, turned his face up to the stars.
“That question,” said Ash, as Gladion mapped out the constellation Suicune with his eyes. “I still dunno any answers you’d want?” A pause. Waves crashed twenty feet away, with a sound like a distant avalanche. “We can have another battle though!”
Gladion almost laughed. He managed to muffle it, though, found the North Star at the tip of Suicune’s crest. If he laughed, he’d be treating Ash like a child, and he knew better than that, now. There was something about the way Ash reacted when the situation turned serious that made Gladion trust like he’d sworn to never do again, even though Ash any other time was clumsy and big-hearted and several years his junior. Ash wasn’t a child in those moments, the same way Gladion wasn’t.
Besides, if Gladion treated Ash like a child, he wouldn’t get any answers — he knew that much.
He dropped his eyes to Ash’s face, profiled against the moon, and said, “Why did Lugia call you Chosen One?”
“Hmng,” said Ash. He was staring out at the horizon, where the legendary pokemon had disappeared. Then he added, reluctant like he was admitting to something terrible, “There was this prophecy, back on Shamouti Island. …I helped to fulfill it.”
Ash shrugged fluidly. “It was awhile ago, but I guess Lugia never dropped the title? Sorta weird, honestly.”
“That’s not an answer,” said Gladion, even though it sort of was. A prophecy. “What prophecy?”
Ash was still looking out at the ocean, away from Gladion. He shrugged. “It was awhile ago.”
Pikachu said something, a long string of words in an almost singsong tone.
“…thus the Earth shall turn to ash,” finished Ash, in a mutter. He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t forget, Pikachu, it’s not like I could forget Celebi or someone going back in time or whatever and putting a pun on my name in a prophecy. ”
“Pii-ika,” said Pikachu. And then it nuzzled his cheek, frizzing the hair that puffed out from under his cap. “Pikapi.”
Gladion didn’t bother to say anything this time. He just watched, half-aware of his frown, as Ash indignantly tried to flatten out his hair and Pikachu laughed from his shoulder like its partner being flustered was the height of comedy.
If Gladion hadn’t really been looking, all he would have seen was some naive child playing with some unremarkable pokemon. Because he was looking, he could see corded muscle under Pikachu’s thick fur, how it moved with the grace and control of a seasoned battler, the way it was so in synch with its trainer that Ash shifted his weight without even noticing to accommodate its balance on his shoulder, the way Ash’s smile slipped, haltingly, partway through getting his hair back in place. He leaned back on his hands.
Gladion remembered that strange, beautiful z-move the two of them had executed, bright against the heavy gloom on the other side of the ultra wormhole. The shattering power of it, the glorious synchronicity of it, the striking resplendence of it, like they’d been performing it their whole lives until it was easy as breathing— and the sky had erupted in color.
Pikachu licked a paw and tried to smooth down the last of the frizzed hair itself, to essentially no avail except that Ash quirked a grin at it.
Favored by and familiar with Tapu Koko to such an extent that if he were Alolan, he would probably be considered for Kahuna were Hala to die.
Gladion thought about his question from three weeks ago, and realized he still hadn’t got an answer.
So many things about Ash didn’t add up, and the way Lunala’s moonlight drew his face in profile, softened the curves and sharpened the edges until Gladion wasn’t sure who he was looking at at all — that didn’t help matters either.
Gladion was supposed to be strong, and to be strong meant to make sacrifices. He was supposed to know everything there was to know about Ultra Beasts, to be the first and last line of defense against their incursion, to defend his family.
Legendaries weren’t supposed to be seen by normal humans, and they especially weren’t supposed to come out of nowhere and entrust a visiting student with their pre-evolution to be raised. The Guardian of Conflict wasn’t supposed to dote on a strange boy whose lycanroc evolved at dusk, wasn’t supposed to teach anyone z-moves, wasn’t supposed to be greeted like a friend.
But they had, and it was, and Ash had done marvelously, and Gladion? He’d called Nebby an Ultra Beast and hadn’t been strong enough on his own.
He said, not really to Ash at all, "What does Tapu Koko see in you?"
The moment the words left his mouth he realized the insult they implied, and almost winced.
Ash didn't seem offended, though. "Dunno," he said, and kicked idly at the sand with his foot. "I think it just wants a good fight?"
"It didn't need to help us rescue my mother if it just wanted a battle,” pointed out Gladion. He knew better than to doubt Ash’s ability to give it that battle, now. “I’d even say helping us was out of the goodness of its heart if it wasn’t one of the Tapu.” He paused. “They don’t think along human lines.”
Ash hummed, ran a hand through Pikachu’s fur. “They’re a lot more like us than you think,” he said. He looked down the shore away from Gladion, and Pikachu murmured something in his ear.
Tapu Koko stealing Ash’s hat to call his attention and Ash getting the message without any other sort of prompting, understanding Tapu Koko’s intentions and instructions and treating it as casually as he treated his classmates. Ash offering Solgaleo star candy without any of the fear or awe Gladion and everyone sensible had been feeling, understanding its offer of a ride immediately. Ash, synchronized enough with a legendary to match it in a z-move.
Ash, a hand on Lugia’s neck.
“If you say so,” Gladion muttered. There wasn’t much conviction behind it. But if anyone were to know something like that, it would be the Kahuna or it would be Ash.
Gladion caught himself fidgeting with the zipper on his jacket pocket. There were too many questions he had no answers to. Not knowing was dangerous.
And he was curious, too. Who wouldn’t be, faced with an impossibility like Ash?
A wave receded, stranding a pyukumuku. Gladion considered getting up to toss it back, but he couldn’t muster the drive, so he watched patiently as it moved with unbearable slowness back towards the tide. The constellation Zeraora arced across the dome of the sky.
“Those discs you have,” said Ash. Gladion turned his head, not really having expected him to speak. He wondered where the topic had come from. “They change Silvally’s type, right?”
“Memories, but yeah,” said Gladion. He almost tried to take the words back as soon as they left his mouth — everything about Silvally was supposed to stay a secret — but Ash already knew so much, and was so puzzlingly trustworthy, and was owed some truth, even if he wasn’t giving any back.
Ash bit his lip and met Pikachu’s gaze, a long look that almost read as concerned. “…Just like Arceus,” he said finally, still looking at Pikachu. His voice was so quiet Gladion almost couldn’t hear it over the crashing waves. “Yeah.”
“Pika…” said Pikachu.
“And Mewtwo…” answered Ash. Gladion felt like he was missing half the conversation, and not in the sense that he couldn’t understand Pikachu. Ash frowned. “I don’t like it either.”
Gladion felt his eyes flash. “D’you have something against Silvally?”
“What?” Ash scrambled back on his hands, and Gladion realized he was looming again. He drew back, but only a little. “Silvally’s awesome, are you kidding me? It’s just—” Gladion watched as all the tension drained right out of Ash and his hands furrowed the sand outwards until he was flat on his back, face to the stars. “Nevermind.”
“What?” said Gladion.
Ash didn’t answer, but Pikachu did, a sharp “Pi, pikachu!” that Gladion knew was a dismissal.
Pikachu’s cheeks were sparking, the color of its electricity all washed out by the moonlight.
Gladion dropped the topic, and went back to watching the pyukumuku. It was almost at the wave-line, which was impressively fast for its species. A lone wingull dove at it and took a punch to the gut for its troubles. Gladion would admit to some satisfaction as he watched it swoop off.
The waves crashed, musically.
“You take good care of Silvally,” said Ash, out of nowhere again. Gladion turned back to him. He was still lying on his back, and speaking in a voice like he was giving orders. Pikachu was perched on his chest, a spot of yellow in the dark — it was remarkable how serious Ash could sound while lying prone like that. “Keep it safe.”
And at any other time, any other day, any other person, Gladion would have bristled at the condescension, but the way Ash said it, low and worried and terribly trusting, there was no implied insult. There was just knowledge, and an unbearable sort of hope, and so Gladion promised, “I will.”
“Thanks, Gladion,” said Ash. He levered himself back to sitting up in a mess of elbows and flashing fur, brushed a hand through his hair and adjusted his hat, kept staring at something off in the distance Gladion couldn’t see. “I’m really glad Silvally has a friend like you!”
“Mm,” said Gladion. He wasn’t about to admit aloud the warm thing that had crept unexpectedly into his chest like a salandit curled up sunning on a rock. Instead, he imitated Ash and swept his eyes to the stars.
The constellation Pixie was cresting the horizon to the west — Lillie’s birth sign. Back before everything went wrong, back when they were a family and his mother’s hugs felt warm, Lusamine had sat outside with Gladion and Lillie and pointed their signs out for them, Lillie’s Pixie and Gladion’s Dread and Lusamine’s Sky and their father’s Meadow.
He wondered briefly what Ash’s sign was, then dismissed the notion. Astrology was fake anyways. Just look at his mother. A Sky sign was supposed to understand freedom, not be— whatever she was. And there were so many more important questions he wanted answered, earthshaking questions, essential questions, questions Gladion wanted to rip the answers out of Ash with a ferocity that terrified him.
But he was better than his mother, so he sighed into the wind and admired the way Pikachu’s eyes glowed with a faint light, like a flickering lightbulb in an empty room.
And then Ash turned his head to look at him, and smiled with teeth. “So, about that battle…”