Looking over the map, Brock couldn’t help but notice Kalos was a lot smaller than most of the other regions he’d travelled through. And unlike Kanto, most of it could be traversed via train, cheaply enough that even pokemon trainers could use it. He traced the line, smiling as he remembered all the times he and Ash had gotten lost, taking shortcuts and wrong turns. He wondered if Ash still managed it somehow.
“Ah, you wouldn’t be Brock Slate, would you?”
He turned, smiling warmly at the man walking over to him, hands in his lab coat pockets. “Professor Sycamore, I presume.”
“That’s me. Marvellous to meet you!” The professor was tall, thin, and had a look Gary would probably try and copy in a few years. He bowed from the hips, almost just an incline of his head, and smiled warmly. “How was your flight?”
“Long, but good. The flight attendants were amazing,” he added with a dreamy smile. The only one that would serve him was actually a guy, but it had been a lot of fun watching the female ones all the same. But now he had to focus, so he pulled himself together. “Kalos is really beautiful. And I’ve already seen a lot of pokemon I’ve never even heard of.”
“Quite an achievement, given how many regions I hear you’ve been to,” Sycamore noted, and then gestured for Brock to follow him out of the transport centre. “All around the eastern regions, if my information is correct.”
“Yeah. And I really miss it. But training to become a pokemon doctor isn’t really something you can do on the road.”
“No, I know what you mean. Science waits for no pokemon battle, either,” he said. “And in the interests of that, shall we be on our way? I appreciate you coming all this way, but I’m sure you’d like to meet the subject of our visit.”
“Sounds good. I have Gary’s notes too,” he said, hefting his backpack. “We can go over them on the drive if you like.”
“Marvellous. Come, my car is over here.”
Personally, Brock felt like everyone was overreacting, and Misty agreed with him, which was why she’d refused to be involved. But Tracey didn’t want to risk getting caught up in the world ending and Gary was on site, while Oak and Delia both would have made Ash suspicious. So Brock got volunteered.
And a weekend trip to Kalos paid for by two high-flying pokemon professors was nothing to turn down.
The problem was that Ash had been acting weird in Unova, and stopped calling home now he was in Kalos. And now, with Professor Sycamore requesting information about Ash and his pokemon, everyone was on high alert, thinking the kid was wrapped up in… something worse than the usual worse-than-usual problem.
But as they drove, Professor Sycamore didn’t seem that concerned, more curious. He listened to Gary’s notes about Ash’s evolution of his pokemon, noting that some had never evolved past their starter origins while others shot through the evolutionary line in weeks. He was interested in Gary’s frustrated observation – that this odd pattern didn’t seem to be related to training experience or Ash’s relationship with the pokemon. Gary couldn’t actually see a pattern at all.
“But you ask me, it’s simpler than that,” Brock said with a shrug. “The pokemon that evolve want to evolve. The ones that don’t, don’t.”
Sycamore glanced at him with a bemused smile. “That’s not how it normally works.”
“No, and we actually had to deal with that in Sinnoh, with our friend Dawn’s Piplup,” he said. “But it doesn’t work that way for Ash.”
“Hmm… why do you think that is?”
He shrugged again. It was hard to define, or explain. Normally no one even brought it up. “Ash is different.”
Sycamore didn’t even pry into that, just hummed thoughtfully and asked for the next section of notes. Once they were done, he asked about Brock’s time spent travelling with Ash, but it seemed more like polite curiosity than scientific probing, so Brock was honest. Travelling with Ash was exciting, busy, and always interesting, with what felt like a new adventure every two days.
“And there’s Team Rocket, of course,” he added with a wry grin. “Annoying but constant.”
Sycamore raised his eyebrows. “You seem almost fond of them.”
“Fond isn’t the right word,” he said. “But you kind of get used to their bumbling evil. And they aren’t that much of a threat, really.”
“I confess I’m surprised,” he said. “Despite constantly stopping them—holes in my lab aside—Ash seems to take them quite seriously. I would have thought you would too, given how long you travelled together.”
“Ash takes them seriously?” he asked incredulously. “Are you sure he isn’t just annoyed? This is a kid that once broke out afternoon tea when they were in the middle of trying to kill him.”
“No, he usually seems quite concerned when they show up,” Sycamore insisted. “I did find it odd, given how quickly he usually deals with them, but I thought he perhaps knew something I didn’t. Do you think something happened after you returned to study but before I met him?”
“It’s always possible,” Brock said with a frown. Unlikely, but… Ash had been acting weird this past year… But it was Team Rocket. They were terrible at being bad guys. Heck, they’d saved Ash’s life more than once, and failed to catch Pikachu so many times it was a running joke. Just to prove the point, Brock told Sycamore about some of their more outrageous stunts, and he laughed before telling him about their now nearly-incessant rhyming, which amused Brock more than it should have.
The topic kept them going through several long hours of driving, but they eventually reached a beautiful town filled with red-lacquered, traditional wood housing, all of them strung with lanterns. Brock could see a large tree at the end of the road, but they didn’t drive up to it, instead pulling up outside of the Pokemon Centre. They’d barely gotten out of the car when the front doors opened and a little blonde girl ran out.
“Professor Sycamoooore!” she sang, spinning around with her arms spread wide. “Welcome to Pikari Town! You’re early!”
“Hello Bonnie!” he said cheerfully. “I didn’t want to make you wait. Have you been here long?”
“Just since last night. Zapdos was mean, so we didn’t stay on its mountain as long as we were going to.”
“Zapdos?” Sycamore repeated, pausing before he could finish reaching into the backseat for his bag. “You met Zapdos?”
“Kiiiiind of,” she said, rocking back and forth on her heels. “It was angry, and kept trying to hit people with lightning bolts. Clemont says it’s because it was protecting its territory, but I think it’s just mean. Anyway, Ash battled it and Noibat became Noivern, so Zapdos calmed down and went away. I barely even got to see it.”
Brock rolled his eyes—it definitely sounded like a standard day for Ash—but Sycamore seemed particularly interested. “Isn’t Noibat the pokemon that hatched from that egg you found?”
“Uh huh,” she said brightly, before she finally seemed to notice Brock and faltered slightly, arms snapping behind her back. “Um…”
“Oh, that’s right,” Sycamore smiled and gestured to Brock. “Allow me to introduce Brock Slate. He’s a friend of Ash’s, from Kanto.”
She immediately perked up again, arms swinging around and up in front of her instead. “You’re one of Ash’s friends? From Kanto? That’s so far away! I bet you have all sorts of really cool pokemon there! I hear they have all kinds of dragons that aren’t even dragon types!”
He smiled. People were always so amazed by Charizard and Gyarados. He’d never really understood why, but then he had grown up around them. “That’s right. It’s nice to meet you.”
“So, Bonnie, where is everyone?” Sycamore asked curiously.
“Clemont’s working on some really boring equations, Ash is training of course, and Serena’s making dresses for Sylveon,” she said. “Clemont said I’m not allowed to help Ash until Ash is sure Noivern can control its power, which I think is stupid, because Noivern was Noibat and Noibat would never, ever, ever hurt anyone. But he says pokemon can be different when they evolve, especially when it happens too soon after they hatch, but I think Ash is too strong to have anything like that happen!”
Brock bit back stories about Charizard and Grovyle, mentally balancing them with a better comparison like Donphan. Ash was generally pretty amazing with pokemon he hatched – a fact that had once bruised Brock’s breeder ego until he chose to believe it was his influence.
“So I was with Serena, but then I saw you drive up, so I figured I’d come greet you. Come on in, I’ll get Squishy!”
They watched her turn and run back inside, and Sycamore smiled at Brock’s stare. “She’s not always that excitable. She must be bored.”
“I didn’t know Ash was travelling with a kid,” he said, as they hitched their bags onto their shoulders and followed her in. “I take it Clemont’s her big brother?”
“That’s right. And the gym leader of Lumios City.”
“Hah. You know, that would make him at least the fourth gym leader Ash has taken from their gym.”
“Well, I’d make a joke about collecting gym leaders and badges, but as I understand it, Clemont was already removed from his gym when he decided to travel with Ash,” he said, and then turned his attention to the lounge area off to the side of the foyer. A girl about Ash’s age was sitting on one of the couches, fabric and ribbon spread across her lap, a Sylveon and three pokemon Brock had never seen before—a fox-like fire type, a little black and white bear of some kind, and what kind of looked like a very small, round raichu, though it was asleep under a pile of ribbons—clustered around her. Sycamore’s smile widened again. “Serena, hello!”
“Oh, hello Professor!” She smiled brightly, and Brock blinked. It wasn’t uncommon for Ash to end up travelling with pretty girls, but this one was really going above and beyond in that area. Dark blonde hair, big blue eyes, pale skin, and a smile that warmed you like the sun itself. If she’d been even five years older he would’ve fallen over himself to ask her out. But like all pretty girls, she barely acknowledged his presence, instead gesturing to the pokemon and fabric draped across her lap. “I’d get up to meet you, but as you can see I’m a little tied down at the moment.”
“That’s quite alright. Getting ready for the Master Class? And I see Eevee evolved! Into a Sylveon – I hope you know how well that speaks for you,” he said with a kind smile at both trainer and pokemon, and they both giggled, one of Sylveon’s tendrils extending out to wrap around Serena’s arm. Sycamore then turned to nod to the other two pokemon. “And I see you’re also taking excellent care of Pancham and Braixen. Such marvellous coats.”
“Braixen,” the fox said delicately, while the bear smirked and folded its arms.
The fox started, then turned to glare at it. “Brai brai!”
In response, the bear only glanced at it playfully, apparently humouring it. “Pan pancham pan pan.”
“Stop it you two!” Serena shouted, and they both froze before quickly spinning away from each other and looking as innocent as they could. Brock grinned.
“Ah, Professor Sycamore,” another voice interjected, and they all turned toward it. Brock was slightly surprised to see a boy around Ash’s age following Bonnie down the stairs, a laptop under his arm. If this was Clemont, Brock had expected him to be older—at least Brock’s own age—and he certainly hadn’t expected any of Ash’s travelling companions to look so… well… unathletic was probably the nicest way to put it. But that was what the boy was, and he adjusted his huge round glasses as he walked forward. “You’re earlier than we expected. It’s nice to see you again.”
“And you too, Clemont. Before we get any further, I should probably introduce you all,” Sycamore said, and turned toward Brock. “This is Brock Slate, a Pokemon Doctor in training and one of Ash’s friends from Kanto. Brock, this is Clemont and Serena, and of course you’ve met Bonnie already.”
“And this is Squishy!” Bonnie added, holding up… some kind of green blob. With at least one eye, Brock realised belatedly. Which was glaring at him.
“Brock Slate?” Clemont repeated, adjusting his glasses again. “As in the former leader of the Pewter City Gym?”
“A long time ago, yeah,” he said, bowing his head in greeting. “I’m afraid it’s been a while since I read up on other gyms. Lumios was a…?”
“Fire-type in your day, I think,” he said. “Now it’s electric. My specialty, though I only keep one electric type on hand these days.”
“Sounds familiar. I was rock with one rock-type when I was travelling,” he said with a grin, and they both chuckled.
Despite her previous reluctance to get up, Serena had hurriedly shoved everything aside and was now walking over, trying to gussy up without making it obvious – which of course made it extremely obvious. She stuck out a hand, then immediately yanked it back, before starting to bow, only to stop again, and then finally sinking into a kind of curtsey. Everyone stared at her, but she just smiled politely.
“A pleasure to meet you, Dr Slate. Ash hasn’t told us much about his friends from home. Have you known him long? Do you come from the same hometown?”
“Uh, no,” he said, tilting his head a little. She didn’t seem crazy. Just weirdly nervous. “We met when he was first starting out on his journey, and we travelled together for a really long time. And I’m not a doctor yet.”
“Oh!” she said, and seemed to relax a little. “You’re just friends then. I mean, not that I mean you’re ‘just’ anything, I mean… Ash will be very excited to see you, I’m sure. I’m going to go finish my sewing.”
They continued staring at she turned on her heel and marched back to the couch, face flaming red. Clemont was the first to recover. “Speaking of whom, he’s out at the moment. But he should be back by lunch, or we can go find him, if you’d prefer?”
“That’s okay,” Brock said, glancing toward the empty reception. “Where’s Nurse Joy? I should probably check in.”
“And I need to confirm I can still borrow some of her equipment,” Sycamore added with a glance at the green blob.
“She’s cleaning up out the back,” Bonnie reported. “We’re keeping an eye on the front desk for her.”
“She’ll probably be busy for about another hour,” added Clemont. “But I’m sure she won’t mind taking a break if you want to get started right away.”
“No, I should probably go find my hotel anyway,” Sycamore said, and then looked at Brock. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay there? I’m happy to pay for your accommodation if you’re concerned about the cost.”
“And miss seeing Nurse Joy for even a few extra moments of the day?” he asked, horrified. “Not on your life!”
Ash’s new friends were Good People, Brock decided. Friendly, and fairly down-to-earth, and the weirdest thing about them seemed to be that they all… admired Ash. Despite not being there, he came up in conversation regularly and easily, almost like the group couldn’t fathom not including him.
And as much as Brock had followed Ash for years and cared about him like a little brother, people showing him so much respect was just straight-out weird.
It made Brock wonder how Ash acted around them – he was such an impressionable guy, the way a person acted toward him could really change the kind of person he seemed to be. If someone expected Ash to act like a little kid, he would. He’d be childish, immature, reactive, whine, and get into fights. Brock could admit he actively brought it out sometimes, if only because it made him feel more grown-up in return. He knew Gary did, for exactly the same reason, though it didn’t work as well as it had before Johto, now that Ash knew he considered them equals. Gary’s attempts were more likely to bring out Ash’s insecurities these days, where he would blame himself for everything and constantly need to prove himself instead.
On the other hand, if you treated Ash like an adult, he was surprisingly mature and patient. It was most noticeable when he was around little kids, or hurt pokemon – he’d suddenly become the most amazing big brother Brock had ever seen, attentive but encouraging, always with a ready smile.
This group probably brought out the latter, but in a different way than Max once had. In the hour Brock spent with them as he and Sycamore inspected the green blob—named Squishy, due to its elastic consistency—the group didn’t insult Ash once. They talked about him like he was the leading authority on all things pokemon, everyone’s best friend, and, most importantly, the one who kept them safe.
Once again, Brock thought, that was weird.
Squishy was weird too, though in a different way. He’d never seen a pokemon like it. It didn’t seem to have any powers, and didn’t speak aside from the occasional grumble, but it was clearly sentient and had something of an attitude. Nurse Joy’s equipment reported a healthy organism, possibly with telepathic abilities, that seemed intended to merge with others, like a diglett or cell-pokemon.
Despite not having a mouth, it somehow scowled at them throughout the entire examination.
“Well,” Clemont announced after they surrendered to the fact they weren’t getting anything out of it. “If that’s the case, Professor Sycamore, would you care to have a look at that project I mentioned on the phone? I’m sorry we were so vague about it, but we don’t have a lot of information yet and I’d love your input.”
“Of course,” he said. “Bonds between humans and pokemon are truly fascinating. I’m always intrigued by the ways they can affect a pokemon’s evolutionary path.”
Clemont gave an awkward kind of laugh and stood up, holding out his laptop. “Well then, if you don’t mind, maybe we can go into one of the back rooms and have a look. So we don’t disturb anyone.”
Brock blinked, then looked around the empty Pokemon Centre. He wasn’t surprised Joy was spending most of her time out the back, because literally no one had come in the entire time they’d been there. But Sycamore just smiled like he understood and nodded, gesturing for Clemont to lead the way. Serena and Bonnie watched them go with concerned eyes, then exchanged glances.
“Something going on?” Brock asked, and they both jumped.
“Uh, no!” Bonnie said loudly.
“No, everything’s just fine and not strange at all!” Serena said. “It’s just a… special project. Unusual, you know?”
“Right,” he said, deciding he’d just ask Ash. Whenever he showed up. He pushed himself to his feet and stretched. “Well, I might take a look around town. Anything in particular I should check out?”
“Mm, not that I know of,” Serena said, and she got out a small pocket computer, tapping away at it for a few moments before speaking again. “No, this town’s not really known for its tourism. It seems pretty to me, though!”
“It sure is that,” he agreed, and started to hand Squishy back, but Bonnie jumped to her feet before he could say anything.
“Ooh! Can I come with you? We didn’t get to look around last night. I promise I won’t get in the way!”
He blinked, then smiled ruefully. “Sure, Bonnie.” She could tell him what they’d really been up to lately.
With how exuberant she was, Brock had half expected Bonnie to skip down the street, but Dedenne and Squishy had both crawled into her bag, so she actually walked even more sedately than Brock did.
“What’s Kanto like?” she asked curiously. “Do you all ride around on Gyarados and Pidg- pidgie-”
“Pidgeots,” he supplied. “And no, not everyone. Just some trainers. Ash didn’t ride his that much, whatever he told you.”
“Ash had a pidgeot?” she asked, and he raised his eyebrows.
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Uh-uh. Ash doesn’t talk about stuff from before that often,” she said, and lifted a finger, closing her eyes and speaking with a lecturing tone. “He’s in Kalos to be in Kalos, not wherever he used to be.”
Brock smiled. Ash wouldn’t say something like that, but it sure sounded like how he’d think. “So has he told you anything about Kanto?”
“Not really,” she said, dropping her hand to instead hold it behind her back. “He talks about the pokemon there sometimes, and how you don’t have wild berry trees everywhere like we do. And he says the food is different there. And your jelly doughnuts are weird.”
“Let me guess – your jelly doughnuts are more like normal doughnuts,” he said. “Just with jam inside?”
“Uh huh. We went to a secret ninja village, and they had these balls made out of weird rice with some kind of sticky berry and fish mixture inside, and Sanpei said they were called ‘on-ni-gi-ri’, but Ash called them jelly doughnuts, and he ate like twelve of them,” she said, shaking her head like it was crazy. “The rice was okay, but I didn’t like the stuff inside. Do you guys really eat seaweed, too?”
He chuckled. “Yeah.”
“Ew! That’s so gross!”
“Most kids back home would say the same thing about fish eggs,” he said. “But that’s a big thing over here, isn’t it?”
She made a face but didn’t comment on that, instead swinging around on her heel to walk backwards, where she could see him better. “What’s it like, where Ash lives?”
“Pallet Town?” he asked, then shrugged. “It’s a nice little village. Mostly farmland, all built up around Professor Oak’s ranch. Ash’s mom runs a cafe.”
“Professor Oak?” she repeated. “Is that who Ash got Pikachu from?”
“That’s right. He gives out all the starters in Kanto, but Ash was best friends with Professor Oak’s grandson growing up, and the professor’s really good friends with his mom, so they’re pretty close.”
Bonnie slanted a look at him. “Ash has a best friend back home, huh? Boy or girl?”
“Boy, why?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow as her look only got more intense.
“He’s not smart though, right? Not like my brother?”
“Uh, smart in a different way, maybe. Gary’s a pokemon researcher, like his grandfather.”
“But no inventions, right? Ash doesn’t go all ‘that’s so amazing!’ around him, right?”
“Because Ash thinks my brother’s the smartest person he knows,” she said firmly. “And that he’s really strong, and cool. They’re super best friends. Way better than Ash is with some guy back home that he never talks about.”
Ah. Brock tried to hide his wince behind a smile, but he wasn’t sure how successful he was. These kids were obviously fond of Ash, maybe even more than May, Max, or even Dawn had been. But they also seemed the type to stick to their home regions where they could. And Ash… Ash wouldn’t be staying in Kalos. After the conference, he might stay another few weeks, maybe a month… but then he’d leave.
Brock doubted the group had talked about that yet, but Bonnie was probably too young to understand it. She’d no doubt decided that Ash was going to always be there to be best friends with her brother. Anyone else was a threat.
He considered that for a few moments, then asked, “What does Ash think about Serena, then? If he and Clemont are best friends, how does Serena fit in?”
Bonnie immediately lost her glare to a giggle. “It’s a secret!”
“A secret, huh?” he asked. “Your brother’s secret?”
“Serena’s!” she said. “Boys don’t get this stuff!”
Of course. If history had taught Brock anything, much to the crushing of his self esteem, it was that pretty girls that travelled with Ash could deny it all they liked, but they all had one thing in common. “Serena has a crush on Ash, doesn’t she?”
Bonnie giggled again and nodded. “Serena really, really, really likes Ash! They met when they were little, and Ash saved her, and she fell in love!” she said, and threw out her arms with a twirl that made Dedenne pop its head out of the bag to object. Bonnie just grabbed it up and swung it over her head. “Boys are too stupid to know this sort of thing, but it’s a real love story! One day, Ash is gonna figure it out, and then they’ll get married and live happily ever after!”
Ooh, boy, was all Brock could think. Bonnie was going to have a real hard time in a couple of months.
He wondered how the other two would take it.
“Hold on – wait – I can’t – whoa!”
The familiar shouts made Brock pause, and Bonnie poked her head around him as a loud thud was quickly followed by a crash and several shrieks. Bonnie gasped, and by the time Brock had turned around, she was already running to a large purple-and-black pokemon half-buried under an overturned case of apples. The obvious owner, a very beautiful girl in an apron, didn’t seem to know whether to look panicked about her lost merchandise or what was under it.
“Are –” the girl took half a step forward. “Are you alive?”
The apples started to move, and the pokemon tumbled out, revealing itself to be a large bat-creature with huge ears. And lying in the place it had been was none other than a very dazed Ash Ketchum, pushing himself up on his hands and weaving in place.
“Noivern doesn’t fit on my head anymore,” he said vaguely, and then fell over again.
“Ash!” Bonnie cried, jumping to grab his arm and pull him back up. A young man in an apron to match the girl’s reached down and grabbed the other one, and did most of the work in pulling Ash to his feet.
“Hey, you okay there?” he asked. “That would’ve been a nasty fall even without the cart going over the top of you.”
“Yeah,” he said, blinking off his injuries in typical Ash-fashion. “Yeah, I’m okay. Uh… Noivern? Are you okay?”
“Noi-noivern,” the bat mumbled into the pavement. Pikachu bounced over to pet it in something that might have been sympathy if you didn’t know it better. It was a cold little rodent when it wanted to be.
“Maybe you oughta take a rest,” Ash suggested, lifting a pokeball and returning it. That done, he turned to the store owners with an apologetic smile. “Uh, sorry about your apples. Do you think they’re still good?”
The girl winced, reaching down to pick one up, and Brock took the opening, immediately leaping in to take her hand in both of his own.
“How could they not be, grown and cared for by such beautiful hands as these? Surely, just the touch of these gentle green thumbs is enough to bring any fruit to life, just as it has my heart!”
“Wh- Brock?!” Ash cried. Brock ignored him – beautiful girls were always more important.
“And just as these apples were grown from flowers which came from the tiniest of seeds, so too shall our love blossom and grow. I—” Crashing pain jabbed up his spine, poison slicing into his nervous system and locking him up. “—am withering away…”
And so Croagunk dragged him off.
By the time he got back, Ash and Bonnie had finished helping the twin grocers restock their cart, and Pikachu and Dedenne were happily munching on the bruised remainders. Ash himself was enthusing about how cool it was that they had an orchard just outside the town.
“You don’t see many apples in Kalos,” he was saying as Brock walked up. “Kinda reminds me of home!”
“You’re from Kanto, right?” the guy asked. “Or is it the Orange Islands?”
“Kanto,” he confirmed. “I’m from Pallet Town, if you know it.”
“I thought so. You have that look about you,” he said.
“Our grandmother was from Kanto,” the girl said. “She was the one who introduced apples into our grandfather’s orchard. Bought a whole acreage just to plant them.”
“That’s quite a risk on a new product,” Brock noted, and they all glanced at him in surprise, but Ash just smiled and lifted his forearm, inviting Brock to hit it with his own before they went back to the conversation. That was something he’d missed about Ash – true instant acceptance was a rare thing.
“She needed the reminder of home,” the guy said, even as he frowned at Brock. “Besides, it wasn’t really that expensive.”
“The mayor was trying everything he could to sell the land,” the girl explained. “People used to say a dragonite lived underground there, stealing any children that went near it.”
“A dragonite?” repeated Ash.
“Underground?” Brock asked incredulously.
“Stealing children?” squeaked Bonnie.
“It was just a story,” the guy laughed. “Our family’s owned that land for fifty years now, and no one’s ever gone missing.”
“Because Mama and Papa never let us play there when we were kids,” The girl giggled and winked, seeming to enjoy Ash and Bonnie’s wide-eyed looks.
Her brother, on the other hand, rolled his eyes before lifting a hand. “Anyway, we should get back to work. I’m glad you’re okay, Ash.”
“Yeah. Sorry again, and thanks for the apples,” he said, bowing in both apology and thanks. The twins laughed and went back to their cart, leaving Ash to straighten up and look around at Brock. “Uh, hi, by the way.”
“Long time no see,” he said with a grin. “That pokemon was a little too big for a head-pet, even by your standards.”
“It used to be a lot smaller,” he said, holding up his hands as a comparison. “And it’s been flopping on me when it was tired since the day it hatched; give it a break.”
“Pika! Pikachu!” Pikachu called, and Brock turned to see it grinning up at him, halfway through an apple. “Pika pika Pikapi pi?”
“Little help?” Brock asked Ash, who shrugged.
“We’re a bit far from your college. What brought on this visit?”
“Yeah, well, it’s not all about you, y’know,” he teased, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Professor Oak asked me to bring some research to Professor Sycamore, and I took a doctor’s look at that… Squishy.”
“Oh, that’s right!” Bonnie said, bouncing on her toes. “Professor Sycamore’s here early! He’s helping Clemont with that thing Greninja can do.”
And then she gasped, slapping her hands over her mouth. At Brock’s raised eyebrow, she pulled them away just enough to say, “Clemont told me not to tell anyone!”
Ash just smiled kindly. “Brock’s not ‘anyone’, Bonnie. Don’t worry about it,” he said, and then leaned down, extending an arm to Pikachu. It immediately dropped its apple to scamper up, while Bonnie had to actually reach down and pick up Dedenne, who refused to stop eating. Ash waited for her to carefully stow it away in her bag before starting back toward the Pokemon Centre. “C’mon, it’s almost time for lunch and I’m starving!”
“Sounds like a plan,” Brock agreed, and Bonnie cheered before rushing ahead. Once she was out of easy earshot, Brock took a sideways step to be a little closer to Ash and asked, “Greninja?”
“One of my pokemon,” he explained. “It’s got a special power, but we can’t work out how to activate it. Clemont offered to study it, but he hasn’t been getting very far.”
“He seemed pretty reluctant to tell me about it. Maybe I could help.”
“It’d be great if you could,” he said, but surprisingly, he didn’t sound that optimistic about it. Instead, he changed the subject. “So, how have you been, anyway? How’s everyone back home? No one ever picks up when I call!”
“Because you call at three in the morning!” he snapped back. “Haven’t you heard of time differences?”
“Time differences?” he repeated blankly, then thought about it for a second and gasped. “Oh yeah! It’s a different time back home, because we’re further away!”
Brock took slight comfort in Pikachu face-palming at the same time he did.
Ash was definitely different than Brock remembered, but not in a bad way. As he’d guessed, Ash was definitely at his best around these people – responding to their respect and open fondness with a generally calm, kind, and surprisingly mature personality. He was quieter than he usually was in a group this size, too, preferring to listen until he had something of value to say, rather than joining in on the conversation just to be part of it.
It gave him a lot less opportunities to look stupid, too, so Brock wasn’t surprised he was coming off a lot smarter than normal.
“You seem pretty comfortable around these guys,” he told Ash, after they’d left the others behind to visit the pokemart. “How long have you been travelling together?”
“Pretty much since I got here, so not that long,” he said. “But I know what you mean. They’re different than like, Dawn, or May and Max.”
“They’re really nice,” he noted, and Ash nodded.
“We don’t fight a lot. Even Clemont and Bonnie – if Clemont gets mad it’s only because Bonnie’s trying to do something dangerous, and so they mostly make up straight away,” he said, and then chuckled. “Pancham and Chespin fight more than the rest of us combined, but they have fun with it.”
“I guess they’re pokemon too?”
“Pancham is Serena’s, and Chespin belongs to Clemont,” he explained. “Their pokemon actually get along a lot – when Serena’s Sylveon was an Eevee, it was scared of everyone, except for Clemont’s Bunnelby. It’s kind of why I think they’ll stay close, when this all ends.”
Brock raised an eyebrow, and Ash slanted a smile his way, though Pikachu was watching its trainer very seriously.
“Our next stop after this is Serena’s Master Class, and I’ll have my eighth gym badge soon,” he said. “Then it’s the conference. After that, we won’t have a lot of reason to travel together.”
It was weird. On the one hand, Ash was using the same tone as before: light, cheerful, direct. But his expression had changed, very slightly. Something about him seemed suddenly older.
“I mean, Serena will keep performing, and Kalos seems like the best place to do that, as far as I know. And Clemont’s got his gym. Clembot’s great, but he’s gonna have to go back there eventually, and Bonnie’ll go with him,” he said, and turned his face forward, eyes shifting over the road ahead. “Travelling together’s been great, but we’ve all got our own journeys and this one’s gonna end soon. Just like it did in Johto, and Sinnoh, and… and then there was what happened before I came here, and…” He took a breath and then closed his eyes in a smile. “People go where their journeys take them. The important thing is the friends you make on the way. Right?”
For a moment, Brock could only stare and keep pace beside him. It was so easy to forget how deeply Ash felt things, sometimes. And also just how… how lonely the life of a professional trainer could be.
And how much worse it had to be when you knew you almost literally couldn’t have any other life.
They never talked about it. No one did, not even Tracey. None of them were even sure if Ash actually knew, or if he was purposefully ignoring it. But normal trainers didn’t run into legendary pokemon four times a year, let alone do things to gain the respect of Arceus. Normal trainers might give orders to Legendaries, might even catch one or two, if they were both lucky and strong. Normal trainers didn’t get offered assistance, rides, or even the occasional kiss from a Legendary that they then waved goodbye to like an old friend. Normal trainers certainly didn’t save the world, let alone do so enough times for it to be considered a semi-regular occurrence.
Brock sighed. Honestly, this was why he’d put off settling on a real career for so long. “Ash –”
A sudden sound cut off their conversation, but this wasn’t the crash of a cart falling over. It was almost indescribable, but once you’d experienced reality splitting at the seams, you never forgot every sight, sound, and smell of it. Pikachu gripped Ash’s shoulder and the two boys broke into a run.
It was down a side alley. A small green rip in the air, hanging at Brock’s waist height. He stumbled to a stop, but Ash tripped at the last second, yelping as he fell forward, wind-milling his arms to try and stay upright.
“Pika!” Pikachu called, yanking on Ash’s jacket as if that might help. “Pi-ika!”
Brock reached out, but before he could grab hold, something small, green, and startlingly familiar zipped out of the rip in the air, swung up over their heads, and then right into the small of Ash’s back.
“Whoa!” was all either of them had time to say, before Ash was shoved into the rip and out of sight.
Brock blinked, before instincts dulled by a year of complacency kicked in and he hurried forward. “Ash!”
He almost reached the rip, but something on the other side made him stop. A head, covered in a blue and black cap, and then a pikachu, riding a strong shoulder. As Brock watched, a short but fully-grown man clambered out of the rip, which closed behind him with a distinct “Cele-brriiii!”
The man grunted, and then stretched as well as he could without jostling the pikachu. “It says, like it doesn’t have the power to make this whole thing instantaneous.”
“Pika pika pikachu,” the pikachu advised sagely, and the man snorted.
“Easy for you to say. All we have to do to get you lunch is find a berry tree. My money doesn’t work here, and I think my stomach is starting to eat its–”
The man and pikachu both flinched into a freeze, and then slowly turned around like they’d been caught stealing cookies. But as their eyes met Brock’s, not only did they relax, but Brock started to gape.
The hair was different – longer, and tied back in a ponytail at the base of his neck. The clothes were mostly the same as ever, just thicker and less baggy, with fewer red highlights. But everything else, from his eyes to the way he stood, made Brock realise he was looking at none other than an older Ash Ketchum.