Chapter 1: The Setup
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.
Chapter 2: The Fall
He didn’t know what had hit him, but it hadn’t hurt nearly as much as the ground had.
“Ugh… Pikachu?” he asked automatically, pushing himself up onto his elbows.
“Pi-i-ka,” was the groaning response, and Ash leaned his head back to find his partner struggling to its feet out of the long grass.
Ash immediately jerked upright and stared around himself, eyes widening as he realised he wasn’t on a concrete side street anymore. He was on an overgrown walkway, bordered on all sides by long grass and tall apple trees.
“Pika?” Pikachu gasped. “Pika pikachu?”
“I guess it’s Renee and Marq’s orchard,” Ash said, slowly getting to his feet. “But I’ve got no idea how we got here.”
“Pi pikachu,” Pikachu replied, and he reached down to give it an easy path up to his shoulder so they could both look around properly.
There was nothing particularly special about the area, and no sign of whatever it was that had hit him, or Brock, for that matter. It was just a moss-covered stone pathway in the middle of an overgrown orchard.
“Brock?” he called. “You there? Hello!”
“Pikachu!” Pikachu added, before they looked at each other in silent agreement that it was pointless. Brock probably hadn’t been dragged along to wherever they were. But then Pikachu’s ear perked up, and it gripped Ash’s hair, leaning toward the sound. “Pi? Pika?”
“Huh? What is it, buddy?”
“Pika,” it said, and pointed.
Ash obediently turned, and then stiffened. A small but powerful figure was darting through the trees ahead, blue eyes glowing whenever they flashed in his direction. “Celebi?”
It paused its twirling flight for a moment, acknowledging his attention, before flitting off into the trees. He followed without bothering to think. “Hey, wait! Wait up!”
Unsurprisingly, they didn’t catch Celebi, but they didn’t run for long, either. Only a minute later, they stumbled on a group of people, all staring worriedly into a small hole in the ground. They looked up at his appearance, and he stumbled to a halt, immediately involved. One of them was crying, and the other three looked bleak.
“You’re not from Emergency Services,” one of them said irritably. “Who are you?”
“Um,” he said, because that wasn’t the normal way to greet a stranger, “I’m Ash, and this is my partner, Pikachu.”
“Pikachu,” it greeted, a little less enthusiastically than usual due to the expressions they were getting in return.
“Did something happen? Why are you waiting for Emergency Services?”
“Cheryl’s daughter, Shelly,” a second one said quietly, glancing at the crying woman. “She was playing here when the ground here broke open under her.”
Ash flinched and hurried forward so he could look down into the dark hole. “Is she okay?”
“We don’t know,” the last one said. “We heard her crying earlier, but now it’s gone quiet.”
“None of us can get down there to check,” the first one said. “So we called for Emergency Services. Half an hour ago,” she added bitterly.
Ash frowned, kneeling down to try and see into the hole. If he leaned down at a very particular angle, the light just reached the bottom, but mostly it just looked dark. He hesitated, then reached in with one arm to feel the sides of the hole. Slimy brick. It was an old well – abandoned and left to grow over.
“What are you doing?” the first one demanded.
“I think…” He got back up on his knees and pulled the grass back as much as he could. It was matted too thickly to reveal the whole entrance, but with some effort, he managed to clear enough to show one curved side. “Do any of you have a rope? I might be able to fit down there.”
“You – you’re just a child!” she snapped back. “You can’t go down there!”
“I’ll fit,” he pointed out. “Emergency Services might not – they’ll have to dig this well out, and who knows how long that’ll take?”
“He’s right, Delys,” the second one murmured. “Meanwhile, Shelley could be hurt.”
“It’s a moot point anyway,” she argued. “None of us have any rope!”
“I have a Quilladin,” the third said quietly. “Its vines may be able to hold him.”
“Are you all crazy?” Delys shouted. “You want to risk the life of a child you just met?”
“I want to help,” Ash snapped. “I can help! Even if I can’t get Shelley out again, if I can get down there, I can at least make sure she’s okay and keep her safe while you wait for Emergency Services!”
“Oh, thank you!” the crying woman all but launched herself onto Ash’s shoulder, startling Pikachu off and almost sending Ash into the hole already. She squeezed him tight enough to make him grunt, sobbing against his hair. “Thank you so much! Please! Please, just make sure she’s alright! I’m so worried about her!”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” he said awkwardly, patting her back and staring over her shoulder at the worried people behind. “Yeah, I – I’ll take care of her, I promise.”
The man was indeed Ash, just a little older than Brock and a lot less helpful. “I guess you could sum this up with either ‘Celebi’ or ‘time travel’. Or both. Mostly both. There was this thing, with a cave, and only kids can go into it, so we swapped. Honestly, I’d completely forgotten about it until like, just now.” He paused, then corrected himself. “Well… years from now. But just now for me. Time travel is weird.”
“Uh… huh,” Brock said slowly, but if this really was Ash, the years had not helped his ability to read emotions at all, because he immediately went back to his original question.
“So you are Brock, right? What are you doing in Kalos? It was a long time ago, but I could’ve sworn you went back to Kanto after Sinnoh.”
“I’m… I’m visiting Ash. My Ash,” he said, struggling to keep up. He’d had a year off from stuff like this, he was out of practice with just rolling with the punches. “We were worried about him, since he hasn’t been calling us lately.”
The man furrowed his brow, then gasped. “Oh, right, yeah. I don’t remember you coming, but this is when things started getting complicated, so that makes sense,” he said, and then waved his hand lazily. “Don’t worry about him. Me. Whatever. We’re fine. Just… you know, me. Us. Whatever.”
“Pikapi,” Pikachu sighed, and Brock had to agree. This was weird, even by Ash’s standards.
“Sorry,” he said, and then reached for a back pocket and took out a small red device. He tapped at it for a few seconds, then looked up at Brock again. “Look, I’m here for a few hours, apparently, and more than happy to explain anything you like, but can we walk and talk? It’s ages to the closest wild berry tree.”
As if on cue, both his and Pikachu’s stomachs growled, and they blushed, holding their torsos with awkward laughs. “Sorry.”
“We’re just really hungry.”
“And since I don’t think any of the cafes around here will be able to read a state-of-the-art pokedex from the future, I can’t just buy food right now,” he explained. “So… farm? Wanna come?”
“Uh…” Brock hesitated, then sighed. Once, this would have been easy. Now, it felt suspicious. But even if this wasn’t Ash, it had happened around him, so… “I’ll give you a loan.”
“Pay me back in the future,” he said, and jerked a thumb past his shoulder. “Come on, I’ll buy you lunch.”
The man frowned. “Are you sure? You don’t even know I’m telling the truth.”
“Well, my other option is thinking Ash just disappeared into a wormhole with absolutely no explanation,” Brock pointed out. “And while that’s happened before, other people don’t usually get shoved out the other side. I’m trying to roll with it.”
The man hesitated, glancing at Pikachu, but it only shrugged back. He hummed and rubbed the back of his neck, then suddenly grinned. “It will be kind of funny to see if my Brock remembers when I do pay him back. Okay! Let’s see if my map still works!” he said, and then flicked open the pokedex to bring up a holographic map.
“Your pokedex has a map? And it still gets a signal?” Brock asked curiously and the man made a vague noise.
“Kind of. The GPS is working at least,” he said absently. “Okay, so, uh… if I want to get to Montsimmarde…”
“Sense of direction’s still lousy, huh?” Brock asked. It made it easier to think of him as Ash.
“Hey, I was usually following you when we travelled together. And I’ll have you know, some consider it a talent to get lost in just the right way,” he said without looking up. “The wind takes me where I need to be, if you ask certain gym leaders. Oh, I remember this place. Okay, we go… that way.”
The man immediately turned and began leading the way out of the alley, back the way they had come. Brock trailed after him, looking for differences and similarities to his friend.
“So,” Brock began slowly. “You and Pikachu still travel together?”
“Pika pika!” Pikachu said, twisting around to grin at him. “Pika pikachu!”
“I switch out the rest of my team, but Pikachu’s my partner,” the man said absently.
“Switch out? You’re not still catching new pokemon in every new region?” he asked, and the man—Ash, Brock reminded himself. He’d decided this was Ash, so he had to start thinking of him that way—glanced back at him.
“Not many new regions to go to. I would if I did, and if anyone wants to come with me, they’re welcome. But when I’m going back to old places, I tend to go back to the team I first had there, if I can,” he said, and then went back to the pokedex. “Unless something big’s going on. If I know in advance, then I switch out for the heavy hitters. I learned that lesson the hard way.”
“Something big? What lesson?”
Ash grimaced. “Yeah, you know… like, say, uh… geez, what was something that happened back here? Like if I went up against someone like Team Galactic again,” he said. “You can bet I don’t take any unevolved pokemon to fight Cyrus anymore.”
“Anymore? He showed up again?”
There was a very slight pause, before Ash suddenly laughed, a little too loud. “What? No! That was just an example, you know!”
Pikachu sighed again. “Pikapi…”
But Brock considered his options and decided to let him have this one. It was hard enough worrying about Ash in the present, let alone future versions of him. “So that stuff’s still happening? Legendaries, saving the world?”
“Kinda hard to avoid, it turns out,” he said with another grimace. “Learned that lesson the hard way, too.”
Now that was surprising to hear, enough that Brock hurried forward a few steps to catch up and look him in the face. “You save the world?” Ash only seemed to realise that sort of thing when someone explicitly told him, and even then he didn’t seem to notice.
But this one just gave him a weird smile, like his own Ash had done only minutes ago. “Yeah, well… there’s only so many prophecies and legends you can call coincidence before you start accepting it,” he said. “And I… kinda got told off. By Shaymin. I was on a date and it was really awkward. You don’t forget that.”
Brock stared. He wasn’t sure what part of it was more unbelievable, but weirdly it wasn’t the Shaymin bit. “You were on a date?”
“Yeah… it had been going really well, too,” he said wistfully. “But, y’know, after a grassy hamster yells at you for five minutes about how a giant rock is going to explode if you don’t go make Heatran feel better about its shininess, you can’t really be that surprised when your date up and leaves.”
Pikachu’s glance at Brock from behind Ash’s hair was oddly smug, but it at least had the courtesy not to say anything. Possessive little rodent.
“But, you know, I was feeling stubborn that year and the rock did end up exploding,” Ash said with a sigh. “Messed up some volcanoes, and there’s some islands that are still doing clean up, and… yeah. I’d say you’d be doing the world a favour if you slapped me around the head in a couple of years, but I wouldn’t listen.”
Again, Brock decided not to touch that one. This was beyond weird, even for Ash.
Quilladin was a whiner, Ash soon discovered. It complained about being brought out of its pokeball, then again when it had to support Ash’s weight (he knew he was heavy for his age, but come on!), and then finally when it managed to get him down far enough that he was able to jump to the bottom, Ash heard it complaining about having to extend its vines to the limit.
But it did the job, so he just rolled his eyes and looked around the darkness. It was empty.
“She’s not here!” he called up to the waiting adults.
“There’s no one down here!”
“That’s impossible!” Delys yelled at him. “Cheryl saw her fall, and no one’s come out since!”
Even though there was no way they could see, Ash shrugged. He was the only thing down here. But… He squinted at a dark patch of wall, then moved over so he could feel it out. It was a crack… it’d be a tight fit for him, to the point that he was kind of glad he’d left his backpack at the Pokemon Centre, but a little girl would easily be able to duck through. And he could feel warm air coming from it.
He pushed himself up and went back to the well. “I think I see where she went! I’m going to try and follow her!”
“Pikapi!” Pikachu called back down. “Pikachu pi pika! Pika pikachu!”
“No, you stay up –” Ash stopped before he could finish the sentence, sighing instead. If it had been him up there and Pikachu down here, he wouldn’t have even paused long enough to do it safely. Sure enough, he had only just stopped regretting being such a bad influence on his pokemon when Quilladin could be heard complaining again, and Pikachu was dropping into his arms.
“Welcome back,” he said dryly, and Pikachu grinned at him in the darkness.
He tilted his head back to look up at the people above. “We’ll go on ahead. I’ll find her, Cheryl, don’t worry!”
He nodded, then headed back to the hole in the wall, where he and Pikachu stared into the darkness. They exchanged glances, before Pikachu muttered under its breath and released a small spark of electricity in its cheeks. It lit up a very small area, just enough for them to see the crack did indeed go further, and Ash would definitely be able to fit.
“Okay. You go first,” Ash said, and Pikachu jumped down to lead the way.
It led into a cavern, much taller, and with reflective algae that was just enough for Ash’s quickly adjusting eyes to see by, but it was a lot wetter, too. He kept a hand on the wall for balance as he went in.
“Shelley?” he called, and it echoed back at him. “Shelley, are you in here? Your mom’s worried about you!”
“Be careful where you step, Pikachu,” Ash advised, and it nodded before heading onward.
The longer they walked, the wetter it got, until Ash was wading through ankle-deep water and Pikachu was dripping on his shoulder after falling in a hole. But it was definitely getting warmer, and the air was still fresh, so Ash wasn’t too worried. He was more just… confused. What kind of little girl, freshly fallen down a well and probably hurt, walked this far on her own?
He would’ve done it, but as his friends in other regions regularly informed him, he was an idiot.
Then something sparkled against his attention, and he looked up.
“Pikachu, Pikapi?” Pikachu asked, and he glanced at it before turning in a full circle. He couldn’t see anything, but…
There it was again. A soft noise, like… like someone crying… “There!” he gasped, and ran toward the sound.
“Pika pikachu!” Pikachu cried, holding on so tight its claws actually dug into Ash’s shoulder. “Pi-ika!”
“Someone’s crying! Don’t you hear?” He didn’t bother expecting an answer – usually Pikachu had better hearing than he did, so if it hadn’t heard before, it definitely wouldn’t while he was running. “It’s right –”
But his next words were cut off as his foot came down on thin air, and he barely had time to yelp before he was plummeting down and then hitting water hard. The air was almost knocked out of him, but he caught himself from letting out his limited air as he sunk, and quickly recovered enough to swim back up, flinging his wet hair out of his face the second he broke surface.
Pikachu wasn’t on his shoulder. “Pikach-!”
“Pi-kachu!” it gasped as it appeared, a few metres away. It glared at him and he laughed, shrugging helplessly.
“Sorry, I missed that step.”
“Pika pika,” it deadpanned, and then turned and began swimming for ground.
Ash, on the other hand, peered around the darkness first. They’d fallen down a fairly short waterfall into another cavern, and the algae was brighter here for whatever reason. He grabbed his hat, floating nearby, and would have started after Pikachu if another soft noise hadn’t caught his ear.
No longer crying… it was laughing now. Giggling, but like it was trying not to be heard.
“Pikapi?” Pikachu called, and Ash glanced at it, then swam in the other direction, toward the noise.
“Hello? Is someone there?” he asked. “Shelley, is that you?”
“Pika,” Pikachu said quietly, but Ash ignored it, swimming another stroke closer.
“It’s okay, I’m here to help,” he said gently. “My name’s Ash. You don’t have to hide.”
A tiny hand appeared over one of the glowing rocks at the edge of the pool, and a little boy slowly raised his head out from behind it. Pikachu made a soft noise, surprised to see him, but Ash tried not to let his own shock show, moving closer again.
“Hey there. Did you fall down here too?”
“Uh huh,” he said softly. “Are you a friend of Miss Maggie?”
“Uh… I don’t think so. I’m looking for a little girl named Shelley,” he said. “Do you know her?”
“Mm-mm.” He peeked a little further out, letting Ash see him properly. He was young – maybe four or five. With a shock of brown hair and dark eyes, he kind of reminded Ash of Gary, but with the paler skin you tended to see in Kalos. He was wearing the sort of thing Gary had been forced into when he was younger, too – overalls and long sleeves, to protect from the scraped knees and elbows playing with Ash encouraged.
“That’s okay. Maybe you can help me look for her,” he suggested. “What’s your name?”
“Louie,” he said softly.
“Nice to meet you, Louie,” he said, and swam the last couple of metres to be able to get up out of the lake beside him. “Man, that was cold! You must’ve fallen in a while ago, to be dry like that!”
“Uh huh,” he said again. “I’ve been here a long time. It’s cold and I was s- I mean… I…”
“It’s okay to be scared,” Ash said gently. “Down here in the dark, I’d be scared on my own, too!”
By this point, Pikachu had picked its way around the cavern wall and was bounding over the last of the rocks to reach them. “Pi-kachu, pika!”
“And this is my partner, Pikachu,” Ash said. “Pikachu’s probably the only reason I wasn’t scared.”
Louie offered them both a nervous smile, and Ash grinned back as he stood up. “The girl I’m looking for isn’t big and brave like us. What do you say we get out of here and go find her, huh?”
“I… I can’t get out,” he said. “I tried, and tried, but… the wall’s too slippery.”
“No problem,” Ash said confidently, and took Noivern’s pokeball off his belt. “No one’s alone down here; not anymore.”
“So… what year is this? I don’t actually remember much about this whole thing.”
Brock lifted his coffee as he told him, watching with slight amusement as Ash lowered his eyes to his fingers, counting the years under his breath. Apparently some things really would never change.
“So you’re… about a year into veterinary school?” he guessed. “Sorry I don’t remember you coming to Kalos – it was probably pretty important, huh?”
“Not really,” he said, and hesitated before deciding it was probably safe enough to explain to this version of Ash. “Ash was a little weird in Unova, and here in Kalos he doesn’t really call home much. People were getting worried, and then Professor Sycamore called to ask for information about him. It got everyone nervous.”
“That sounds kind of familiar,” he admitted, then tilted his head. “Why did you come to check it out?”
He shrugged. “It was going to be me, Tracey, or Gary, since Ash’s mom probably would’ve made Ash act like things were fine when they weren’t, Misty’s busy with the gym, and Professor Oak would need some reason to visit Professor Sycamore to avoid political issues. I had a week off study.”
“That makes sense,” he said. “So what’s the verdict? Little me doing okay?”
“You tell me,” he replied. “All I’ve been able to tell is that Ash has a good group of friends here, he’s made yet another girl fall for him, and they’re taking care of some weird green blob that hates me.”
“Weird green… oh. Don’t take it personally, Squishy hated everyone,” he said, going back to his soup. “It was a few years ago, but I’m always fine, so don’t worry about him. If Squishy’s around, though, that means it was when I first started doing bond-evolution, so… yeah, he’s probably more stressed out than he’s letting on, but no big deal.”
“Bond-evolution?” Brock repeated, and Ash grinned.
“I’ll let you wait and see that one for yourself. Long story short, without giving anything away, it’s nothing I wasn’t kind of doing already, just on a more noticeable scale. It was also the first time I really got acknowledged as weird, so enjoy the next few years!” he said cheerfully. He paused, stirring and eating his soup for a few minutes as Brock watched him, intrigued by what he wasn’t saying. When he did look up again, he seemed thoughtful, and spent a few seconds watching him right back before muttering, “I wonder…”
“Nothin’, just…” He looked down at Pikachu, who was happily munching on a pokepuff and generally ignoring the conversation going on over its head. He considered for a few seconds before looking up again. “I was weird in Unova because Zekrom knocked me for six, and I was in pretty deep denial about what it was doing to my head.”
Brock blanched. “You – wh- Zekrom? Hit you? I heard it got Pikachu, but –”
“No, it got me too, but I don’t have electrical powers to get sapped. I just had a nagging voice in the back of my head telling me I shouldn’t do the gym challenge, that my friends didn’t understand me, that I wasn’t doing right by my pokemon…” He rolled his eyes and flicked his spoon as if waving it all off. “Thanks for all that insecurity, Zekrom, I really needed it. I mean, I know it was just trying to get my attention and get me to focus on Team Plasma, but it’s like… I had only just gotten over Paul, I was dealing with Trip, Iris was taking out her issues on me, it really could have timed that better, you know?”
“Gotten over Paul?” he asked, confused by the wording. “And who’s Trip?”
“A rival from Unova,” he said, and then tilted his head, gaze going intense again. “Paul you were there for, even if I didn’t tell you why getting stomped by him bugged me so much. I’m wondering if I tell you why he got to me, and that’s why you’ll become nicer about it when I next see you. Or whether I don’t tell you, and it’s just a coincidence.”
“Time travel,” he said, like that was an explanation, and then shrugged. “Paul was harder than you realised because he’s kind of the poster boy for ‘typical battle trainer’, and so he just felt like this big sign that I wasn’t ever going to make it. I’d never win a conference, let alone become a Pokemon Master, because I kind of suck at official battling.”
“Pika, Pikapi,” Pikachu said absently, while Brock goggled.
“I do,” he said, as if it were an obvious fact. “I get all caught up in the rules and the pressure. Whereas you put me in front of a psycho bent on destroying the world with Legendary Pokemon and I will destroy him without breaking a sweat.”
Brock blinked, then sat back in his chair, because he wasn’t wrong. Ash did seem a lot stronger in unofficial matches and his world-saving adventures. He’d just… never really thought about it like that.
“So there I was, making friends with Giratina and Arceus, getting chosen by Lake Guardians, beating up bad guys left and right… and losing like a rookie to a jerk that everyone said was what a real pokemon trainer was supposed to be,” he said, and then shrugged. “I mean, I’d been in prophecies and done crazy stuff before, but that was when it first hit me that maybe I was fooling myself. It took a lot of effort and denial to get past that. Then you left, I ended up in Unova, and Zekrom picked me up as his Hero of Ideals. It was a difficult few months.”
He said it so blandly. Brock rubbed the back of his neck as he stared, not really sure how to deal with anyone—let alone Ash himself—putting a massive issue out on the table like that, like it didn’t matter. Obviously he’d had years to deal with it, and it sounded like he had much bigger problems these days than gym battles, but still…
Ash caught his look and smiled warmly. “Don’t worry about it. I got over it, obviously. You just happened to have shown up here, around the same time it started to get shoved in my face again. Worrying about little me isn’t going to help,” he said, shrugging vaguely. “It’s never going away. You can’t stop him, as much as people would like to. As much as I would’ve liked you to. And I made it to this age, so it’s not like I’m lying when I say things work themselves out.”
Brock hummed in the back of his throat, picking up his coffee again. There wasn’t much left of it, but it was easier to drink than come up with an answer.
He didn’t want to stop Ash. None of them did. As much as Delia hated Ash getting in danger, even she was proud of the things he did and had done, whether that was saving the world or just making someone’s life a little better. Maybe that was why they tried so hard to ignore it, and let Ash act like the things that happened weren’t that impressive or dangerous.
Cracked ribs. Concussions. Burns, bruises, cuts that never seemed to bleed. Psychic headaches and muscle strain that Ash never admitted to because if you couldn’t see it, it wasn’t there. He healed so fast that it was easy to pretend they’d never happened, but Brock had always made a point of cornering him to check.
Who did that now? Did Clemont know to check? Was Serena brave enough to make Ash show her?
Somehow, Brock suspected neither of them had a clue.
“Yeah, Louie?” Having only just made it up out of the cavern, Ash was still pretty tired and trying not to show it. Noivern had been strong enough to lift Louie and Pikachu, but Ash himself had needed to climb the wall that really was almost too slippery to get up. It was only sheer determination and luck that had kept him from falling more often than not.
“You said you were looking for a girl?” he asked. “Because… because I am too. That’s why I’m down here.”
“Yeah?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “But not Shelley?”
“No, her name is Marianne.”
“Mari…” Ash grimaced as he stumbled over the pronunciation. It had broader vowels than he was used to. “Marianne?”
“Noi-noivern,” Noivern repeated awkwardly, and Pikachu shook its head.
“Kapikaa,” it corrected. Ash reached up and petted Noivern’s ears for the attempt anyway, pointless as it was given that Louie probably couldn’t tell the difference.
“She’s my little sister,” Louie said quietly. “We like to play down here, but Miss Maggie always says we shouldn’t. It’s dangerous.”
“Yeah, seems like it,” he agreed. “Did Marianne come down here on her own for some reason?”
“I had to clean up the classroom,” Louie explained, “but Marianne wanted to go play. I told her to wait, but I guess she didn’t.”
“So you came in after her, huh? Okay, we can look for her together,” he said, inwardly wondering if he was going to end up with an entire troupe of lost kids. “Any idea which way she would’ve gone?”
“Um…” Louie winced. “No?”
Ash took a deep breath and nodded, then looked to Noivern. “Maybe you can point us the right way.”
“Noivern noi,” it agreed, turned away, and blasted an ultrasonic.
“Pika pikachu,” Pikachu mumbled, clambering up onto Ash’s shoulder.
“Yeah, let’s get going.”
Ash had moved past soup and was halfway through a weird oyster-ish looking dish, Pikachu now chowing down on pokeblocks, when Brock dared ask his next awkward question.
“So… what do you do?”
“Pika?” Pikachu asked, while Ash just blinked at him. Apparently that was request for clarification enough.
“Well, it sounds like you’re given up on becoming a Pokemon Master,” he said. “Do you still compete?”
“Oh, do,” he said around a mouthful, then flicked his fork around as he swallowed. “No, I got kicked out of the league… three years ago? Four?”
“You got kicked out of the league?” Brock repeated incredulously, not waiting for a translation. “Why? How?”
“So stupid,” he said irritably. “You summon Arceus one time and suddenly you’re considered ‘too powerful’ for regular pokemon battle!”
“Pika pikachu!” Pikachu added furiously, and they exchanged annoyed glances before immediately attacking their food again.
Brock waited, but that was obviously all the information Ash intended to volunteer on his own, so he prompted, “You… summoned Arceus?”
“It wasn’t a match! The Gaia Orb was shattering, I didn’t have many options and MewTwo was busy!” he objected. “I didn’t expect it to show up! I thought the Lake Guardians would answer!”
Again, Brock waited for an explanation that might make any of it make sense, but nothing was forthcoming. He considered asking, then decided that could be future!Brock’s problem and instead asked, “So… I guess you make money some other way?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah,” he said, calming down but making a face to show he was still unimpressed with that aspect of his life. “Officially, I am an in-house Consultant Ranger to the Pokemon League.”
“You’re a Pokemon Ranger?” he asked, and looked down at Ash’s habitual blue clothes, and lack of stylus. “Did you forget to stop by the equipment store, or are you undercover?”
“Neither. Same as although I technically work for the League, I don’t have to accept official challenges,” he said, and then rolled his eyes. “Except prospective Elite Four candidates, but those aren’t challenges so much as trials.”
“Pikachu pi pika,” Pikachu said darkly.
“Uhh… there’s a story there,” Brock said, and Ash huffed.
“A humiliating one. When they pick new Elite Four members, the final challenge they have to pass is battling me, only I can’t use Pikachu, summons, or any of my pseudo-legendaries,” he said. “So… no Goodra, for example. They have to knock me out or make me resort to a bond-evolution within ten minutes.”
“Wow,” Brock said, raising his eyebrows. That did kind of sound like adding insult to the injury of being kicked out of the league. Even if he still only understood about ninety percent of what Ash was saying. “I guess it could kind of be a compliment, that you’re the final trial.”
“So Misty tells me. A lot,” he added, before taking a breath and continuing. “Anyway, putting all that aside, I mostly do what I’ve always done, just without the gym battles. Only I get paid stipends from both the league and the rangers. Turns out the league had been paying me extra for years before they made it official – I just never realised I was getting paid five times the amount most trainers got for conference battles.”
“They were? Are?” he asked, realising he was falling into Ash’s habit of switching tenses. “When did that start?”
“I don’t remember. It was a slow build,” he said. “I just figured the conference rewards were getting higher, and it’s not like anyone was checking my bank balance to point it out.”
Brock chuckled, but it did make some things click into place. Like how Ash had never had trouble paying for everyone’s pokemon supplies, or ever got concerned about food bills no matter how extravagant Brock felt like cooking. And why Rangers were so willing to accept Ash on missions, Jennys happy to have Ash help with cases, Champions taking interest in his career…
“So I just wander around, going where I feel like it unless someone actually asks for help. I usually end up in the right place anyway,” Ash continued, going back to his meal. “Call it fate, I guess.”
They’d been walking for hours before anything happened, weaving their way through caves and tunnels. Only Noivern’s assurance and the constant flow of warm, fresh air told Ash he wasn’t just digging his own grave with every step. He and Louie talked a lot, to keep the kid’s spirits up.
It turned out that Louie and Marianne were twins, and Miss Maggie was a teacher in the village that took care of kids whose parents weren’t around. She had a dragonite called Tini (a holdover from its beginnings as Dratini), which in typical dragonite fashion was loved by pretty much everyone, but especially the village kids. It took just as much care of them as Miss Maggie.
Not that Miss Maggie was a great teacher, in Ash’s unspoken opinion. Louie hadn’t recognised his pokeball, and called Kanto ‘the Eastern border’ which grated Ash’s usually dormant patriotic nerves. But it was Louie not knowing about the pokemon league that really had Ash wondering what she was teaching her kids. He could understand not getting the politics, but he wasn’t sure how you could get to the age of five without at least knowing about the sport side of things.
But he didn’t comment. Louie clearly loved Miss Maggie a lot, and the last thing Ash needed was to offend the kid.
Ash was in the middle of explaining gyms when he heard something again. This time it was different. Gentler. Singing, he realised after a moment. A little girl was singing.
“This way,” Ash said, turning down a side corridor.
The others followed, but he felt Pikachu shifting nervously on his shoulder, and it muttered at him when he glanced at it. He frowned. “You can’t hear that?”
Pikachu just gave him a long look, then shook its head and faced forward again. “Pikachu.”
Which was kind of worrying, and so was Noivern following, instead of moving forward to take the lead, but he knew what he heard. He was just a little more careful about where he put his feet.
When Ash had finally had enough food, they paid up and went for a walk, out of the city and into the orchards. Pikachu ran ahead, bounding along the dirt road and chasing pollen, but Brock found himself watching Ash.
“Why you?” he asked suddenly, without thinking about it. “Did you ever find out? Why do you get wrapped up in all this?”
“A lot of it I just involve myself in,” he pointed out. “Anyone could wander around, helping people that need it. It’s not that special.”
Which was true. Most of the stuff Ash did was just because he bothered to talk to the people he ran into rather than just carrying on his way. “What about the other stuff? The Legendaries? The – the Chosen One thing. Why were you chosen?”
“Because Mom called me ‘Ash’, for one thing,” he said dryly, then shrugged. “Some of it’s because of aura. The Lucario Kingdom have a theory that I’m an Aura Guardian, and wandering the earth helping people is kind of what Aura Guardians do. Some of it’s just luck and timing. I’m the Hero of Ideals because I do what I think is right, no matter what anyone says. And… well, there’s the whole bond-evolution thing. But that's about the pokemon, not me. A lot of it’s just timing and luck.”
Brock nodded quietly, turning his gaze back to Pikachu. They walked in silence for a few minutes before he asked, “Do you ever wish it happened to someone else?”
He didn’t answer straight away, but when Brock dared to glance at him, he was surprised to see it looked more like Ash was thinking about the answer, rather than reluctant. In the end, he said slowly, “I tried to run away from it, after I got kicked out of the league. I was so mad. Still am, kinda. But… you know, even if Shaymin hadn’t yelled at me, and it hadn’t all gone wrong, I still think I would’ve gone back to it eventually.” He ducked his head toward his shoulders with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I like helping people. It’s what I want to do, even more than becoming a Pokemon Master or anything like that. I want to help pokemon become stronger, and help people be happy.” He then lifted his face toward the sun, smiling contentedly, and laughed again. “I would’ve liked to be able to do that while beating every Champion in the known world, but I’ll take what I can get.”
Chapter 3: The Break
She was Louie’s age, her hair just as wild as her brother’s, but where he’d been hiding, Marianne was sitting out in the open, on a boulder. She kicked her legs back and forth and she sang, and smiled broadly when Ash stepped into her cavern. It only faltered when Louie followed him out.
“Y-you… what are you doing here?” she asked.
“Marianne!” he ran forward. “I’ve been looking for you for so long! I fell down into a lake, and I couldn’t get out! But Ash helped me! Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”
She stared at him for a long time. “You… you came to find me? Really?”
“But… but I thought…” She twisted her hands into her skirt. “I thought everyone forgot about me. I thought…”
“Of course no one forgot you,” Ash said as he moved forward, giving Noivern room to fly in as well. “I bet there’s a bunch of people out there really worried about both of you. Miss Maggie’s probably really upset right now.”
“Miss Maggie doesn’t care about me!” Marianne snapped. “No one does! No one but Louie!”
“That’s not true, Marianne!” Louie shot back, stomping his foot. “Is this because Miss Maggie yelled at you? She was just mad you didn’t do your homework!”
“That’s no reason to get angry! It’s just school!”
“Guys!” Ash interjected loudly, holding up his hands. “How about we argue after we find Shelley and get out of here, okay?”
“Who’s Shelley?” Marianne asked irritably. “I bet you came looking for her, didn’t you? Not me.”
“He might’ve, but he didn’t know we were down here,” Louie said, sounding just as annoyed. “I came looking for you, and he helped me get unstuck. Don’t be mean, Ash is nice.”
“Yeah, I do!”
“Guys!” Ash said again, before they could start. Pikachu jumped down to stand between them, arms out.
Both kids folded their arms and looked away with matching huffs, and Ash let out a weak laugh. He knew he could be worse when someone really got on his nerves, but geez.
He walked forward and extended a hand to Marianne. “I might’ve come down here for someone else, but I’m still really glad I found you. Wanna get out of here?”
She peeked down at his hand, then up at his face. He could see the hint of tears in the darkness. “Get out? You mean… you’d take me home?”
“Sure,” he said quietly. “Let’s all go home together.”
She looked away for a moment, then closed her eyes and nodded. “I want to go home.”
The apple orchard was nice, in a spooky kind of way. The trees had grown close to each other, stretching out of the neat rows the other orchards had and almost blocking out the sun overhead. Ash lingered at the fence, caught between heading in and not taking Brock in with him.
In a lot of ways, he was exactly like the boy Brock knew. He was kind and friendly, honest, and perfectly comfortable talking about anything except the stuff that worried people. But he was different too. Calmer, maybe. Less focussed, certainly, but he didn’t have the hyperactive brightness that Brock associated with Ash. Giving up on a dream would do that to anyone, but it was still a sad thing to miss.
Pikachu was different too – it didn’t show off as much, and it had mostly been ignoring the conversation. Now, it was perched on the fence between them, allowing Brock to examine it for the first time since they’d appeared, so many hours ago.
It was thinner than before, he noticed, with nothing but muscle under its fur. He almost got on Ash’s case about it, but it was clear Pikachu was healthy, and its cheeks were still round and plump. Its fur still had that healthy sheen, and it cooed when Brock scratched under its jaw. “Still partners, huh?”
“Always,” Ash said, settling his weight back on one hip. “We take good care of each other, don’t we buddy?”
“Do you travel with anyone else these days?” he asked, petting Pikachu’s tail. “Anyone human?”
“Mm… not at the moment,” he said. “I was last with Trevor – I don’t think you know him yet. He was tracking down Diancie so I went with him to say hi. The last person I travelled with properly was probably… hmm… Misty and I sailed around the Decolor Islands in her boat for about a year.”
He raised an eyebrow, smirking. “You and Misty, huh?”
Ash met his smirk with a falsely innocent smile, blinking wide eyes. “What about it, Brock?”
It was so heavy with hidden meaning that Brock had to grin and lean forward. So Ash had finally developed hormones – or at least rediscovered that people had relationships. “So… that date Shaymin interrupted was with…?”
“One thing has nothing to do with the other,” he replied.
“Uh huh. So who made the first move? I have a bet with Tracey I’d love to settle.”
“Well, I don’t mess with history if I can help it, so I’m not telling you anything,” he said, folding his arms. “You can wait. Besides, if I was gonna tell you anything about future relationships, I would’ve thought you’d be more interested in your own, Kidanova.”
“My – you mean I have some?” he asked, and hunched over Pikachu to lean into Ash’s personal space. “I have a girlfriend? I got married? Who was it? Please tell me it was a Joy! Or, wait, no! It was a Jenny, right? Which one? It was the one from Vermillion, right? I always knew she had a thing for me.”
Ash had the gall to look shocked that he’d asked. “You’re really asking me to spoil the surprise?”
“This is serious, Ash,” he snapped, pounding his palm on the fence. “What’s she like? How old is she? Give me a name, a location, a hairstyle, anything! I have to know!”
“You really don’t.”
“Are you kidding me with this? You come from the future to waste time and not tell me who I’m dating?”
“Did I ever say you were dating someone?” he asked, and then looked at Pikachu with wide eyes. “Did I say that?”
“Pikachu,” it replied, just as innocently, and they both smiled at him in mock-interest.
“Okay, what about exes?” he demanded. “I refuse to believe I got to the age you’re at now without a few girlfriends. How many? At least one of them was a Jenny, right?”
When he’d first met Ash, back in Kanto, he hadn’t been quite the all-loving hero he was these days – in fact, he’d considered quietly mocking people a personal hobby. Apparently being a nice guy was just a phase, because this older Ash gave him a grin that was all kinds of evil.
“Well, I dunno about Jennys, but there was Professor Ivy.”
It shot straight through Brock’s heart, and he crashed to the ground. Ash and Pikachu snickered triumphantly.
Between Noivern and just plain following the upward slopes, it wasn’t long before they started to see signs of an exit. The water was draining away, the algae not as bright. Louie and Marianne had gone quiet, each of them holding one of Ash’s hands.
Their hands worried Ash a little, because they were so cold. They didn’t seem sick or anything, but their fingers were like ice. It was kind of like the water, in that respect – the cave itself was filled with warm air, but the water was freezing.
This time, it was Pikachu to perk up at something Ash couldn’t hear, and Noivern seemed to agree with it.
“What is it? Something else down here?” Ash asked, peering down the way Pikachu was looking. “Is it Shelley?”
“Pi… pikachu pika!” Pikachu replied, and Noivern took off, heading down into a small cavern below their current walkway. Ash winced, but didn’t argue, just helped the kids down and followed after.
Less than five minutes later, he realised why, as he’d barely ducked around a corner when he found himself face-to-chest with a very powerful, very angry looking dragonite.
“Uh… hi?” he said, and it huffed steam in his face.
Ash was nearly knocked into Dragonite as both Louie and Marianne rushed past him and latched onto its legs.
“Tini! We found you!”
“You came for us!”
“We were so scared!”
“It’s been so long!”
Dragonite grumbled back in welcome, while Ash stared at the whole scene. “This is Tini?”
“Yeah!” Louie said as he pulled back with a broad grin. “I knew it would come for us!”
But Ash wasn’t given time to be relieved – Pikachu’s ears were quivering against the side of his head, and it soon patted his cheek for quiet attention. He glanced at it, then followed its pointing paw to a small alcove behind Tini’s back.
“Stay here a second, Noivern,” Ash said quietly, and stepped around the reunited friends to peer inside.
Asleep on a small rock shelf was a small girl, even younger than Louie and Marianne, with long blonde pigtails. She looked a lot like the crying woman had. “Shelley?”
Tini growled, and Ash twisted back around to meet its glare. “Tini? Were you… taking care of Shelley?”
Its growl got a little deeper, and Ash frowned, hand instinctively moving toward his belt. Something about this felt… wrong.
“That’s so nice of you!” Louie said, recapturing everyone’s attention. “Like how Ash took care of me!”
“Tini?” Marianne asked, her voice soft and shaking. “Do you know the way out? Can we… can we go home now?”
Tini’s wings, which had been raised in warning, began to lower, and Ash moved his hand away from his pokeballs, down to Shelley instead.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Marianne whispered. “I want to go home.”
Louie nodded, and the twins pressed into Tini’s legs. “Let’s go home, Tini.”
“I heard it from a friend,” Ash said, leaning back against the fence as he stared into the orchard. “There’s a legend, from a hundred years ago, about two little kids who went missing in this area.”
“Two kids?” asked Brock. “I think I heard something today… about a dragonite that lives underground and steals children.”
“Uh huh. The official story is that there were two orphans that lived here, and they stole their caretaker’s dragonite and went on a pokemon journey,” he said. “But the truth is, the kids got lost in the caves here and the dragonite went looking for them. None of them came out.”
“Oh man,” he said, looking around at the caves. “The kids…”
“Yeah. And the dragonite’s still down there, still looking,” he said. “My friend said it won’t come out until the kids do.”
“But if it’s been a hundred years…” Brock said quietly, and Ash shrugged.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” He shifted his weight a little more heavily on the fence, kicking his legs out in front of him. “Worse, Tini—that’s the Dragonite’s nickname—knows the kids will hide from any grown-ups that try to find them. So it’s put up a barrier to stop them going in. But kids can pass the barrier. So they go in, get lost… and no one can go in to find them.”
Brock looked at the ground under their feet. “So… down there somewhere right now…?”
“Tini’s down there, looking,” he said. “Only even if I knew where the entrance was, I couldn’t get in because I’m too old. You might just make it, if you could find it.”
He raised his eyes back to Ash’s slight smile. “That’s what Ash is doing now, isn’t it? He went back in time to find the kids.”
“Forward, more like,” he said, lifting a hand to point at his own nose. “We swapped places.”
“How come?” he asked. “Why not just send him down there now?”
He closed his eyes and shrugged, turning back to the orchard. “I guess there was an opportunity for him to go down there in my time. Now, he’d be travelling with Clemont and Bonnie, right? No way Clemont would let Bonnie anywhere near a potentially cursed cave, so little me would have no reason to even be out here, let alone go underground.”
Brock hummed in his throat, then said, “I don’t know how he’d react to finding bodies.”
“Like I said, I don’t really remember this whole thing,” he said blandly. “But I would remember something like that.”
“So what’s he doing?”
“I dunno. It was years ago, and I barely remember last week,” he pointed out, then sighed. “I remember helping out some kids and meeting a dragonite that really needed a break. How and why is a little fuzzy.”
He chuckled, but even to his own ears it sounded bitter. Ash glanced at him again, so he tried to explain, “You haven’t changed a bit. You change people’s lives—save their lives—and it’s nothing. You –”
“It’s not nothing,” he interrupted, annoyance leaking through. “Someone’s life is never ‘nothing’. It’s just…”
He trailed off, and Pikachu piped up as if Brock could understand it. “Pi pika Pikapi pika,” it said. “Pika… pikachu pika pika.”
He made a noise like it had clarified something. “I might not remember faces, or names, but I’ve been doing this since before I can remember. Like Serena – have you met her yet?”
Brock nodded silently. He’d been kind of meaning to bring her up all afternoon.
“When we were little, she fell and scraped her leg, and I found her. Wrapped it up, and convinced her to get up and get going. I said something like ‘never give up until it’s over’. I didn’t even think anything of it back then, but to her it was a really big deal, and she never forgot it,” he said, turning his gaze back to the orchard. “I didn’t remember her name, what I did, or even her face. But I remembered the girl in the sunhat, who hadn’t wanted to be at camp. And I remembered her smile as she waved goodbye.”
He was quiet for a few seconds before speaking again. “People are important. Pokemon are important. To me, the ‘big’ things aren’t when I save the world or change someone’s perspective. They’re just things I do. But making a new friend? Earning someone’s trust? That matters. I remember that.”
Brock raised his eyebrows, watching Ash’s profile for a few seconds. It reminded him of what he’d been talking about with the original Ash, before all this started. How lonely it was, never thinking your friends would stick around longer than a gym challenge. It had to be so much worse for this older Ash, who didn’t even stay in a region that long.
“Are we still friends?”
Ash and Pikachu both turned to look at him again, surprised. “Huh?”
“In your time,” he said. “Do we talk on the phone sometimes? Do you ever visit, or do I come see you? When it’s not for business?”
Ash looked away again, and Pikachu’s ears drooped a little, even as it kept smiling. In the end, though, Ash just chuckled lightly, like it didn’t matter. “Of course we’re still friends, Brock!”
It wasn’t really the answer he’d been looking for. But it probably told him what he needed to know.
Ash hitched Shelley onto his back, while Tini carried the twins on its broad shoulders, and they followed Noivern upward and onward. It took time, but eventually the algae was replaced with dim light, and then the red wash of an oncoming sunset.
It was barely a gap in the rocks, only just big enough for Tini, so Ash returned Noivern, sent Pikachu ahead, and then headed out after it, carefully manoeuvring Shelley to make sure she wouldn’t hit her head. He set her down in the long grass, then came back, arms out and ready.
“Okay, Marianne, you first,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
She smiled—the first real smile she’d given him—and put her hands in his. He pulled her up and out, made sure she was safe, then turned back for Louie.
“Ready!” he agreed, grabbing hold of his arm in a monkey grip.
Ash dragged him out too, grinned at the finally safe twins, then turned back for Tini. “Now it’s your turn!”
For a moment, Tini just looked at him, and for some reason, Ash found himself pausing too. In this moment, staring into Tini’s eyes, he suddenly realised just how… tired the dragonite looked. How pale and exhausted it seemed, its scales dull, wing membranes so frail. Without really thinking about it, Ash stepped forward again, extending his hand toward it.
“It’s okay now, Tini. We’re all safe,” he said softly. “You can come out of the cave.”
“Pika,” Pikachu added quietly, moving up beside his ankle. “Pika… chu?”
Tini growled quietly, but did extend its paw out, and Ash didn’t watch it shake, keeping his gaze on the tear-filled eyes. When the blunt, worn claws hit his palm, he carefully closed his fingers around them, and then gently pulled, guiding it forward. It stumbled, and its wings caught on the rocks, but in mere moments, Tini stood on the grass beside him, blinking in the dim light.
“Thank you for coming to find us!” Marianne said brightly.
“Thank you for bringing us home!” Louie agreed.
Ash turned back, and then flinched. Louie and Marianne were sparkling, and slowly fading from view like…
Something at his back, behind Tini, was fading too. Kind of like – kind of like a falling wall. He could only gape as the two children clasped hands and waved, slowly disappearing. Behind them, Shelley was starting to mumble and shift where she lay, waking up.
“Y-you’re welcome,” Ash said finally. “Take care of each other.”
“Pikachu,” Pikachu added, sounding just as stunned as Ash felt.
The kids both grinned and giggled… and then they were gone.
“Thanks for hanging out today, Brock,” Ash said, slinging an arm over his shoulder and dragging him into his side. “This was fun!”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Fun.”
“Oh, cheer up,” he said, and shoved him away again, shoving his hands in his pockets and spinning on one heel to grin at him. “Future you is an amazing pokemon doctor! You even saved all of Oak Ranch from a plague once! I wouldn’t want you to come globetrotting with me when you’ve got so much more important stuff to do.”
“Pika pika!” Pikachu agreed, clenching its paws in determined fists. “Pika!”
Brock tried to smile, but it was hard, even when Ash laughed. “You and Misty talk on the phone all the time. And Dawn drops everything to visit you whenever someone gives her half a chance. And even if they didn’t, you’re not exactly lonely!”
“You are,” he shot back, but Ash’s smile only paused for a moment before hitching back up again.
“Nah! I’ve got Pikachu!” he said, and the pokemon chirped its agreement before bounding up his side to his shoulder. “And people travel with me all the time. Remember Misty and the boat?”
That was true. But it just all felt so… temporary. “Don’t you ever want to stop?” he asked. “You have to have been travelling for what… ten years? Fifteen? Don’t you ever get tired?”
“Yeah, and then we go back to Pallet for a few days. Believe me, living with my mother for a week is more than enough for me to get over that feeling,” he said, and then reached out to clap him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about me, Brock. Or little me. We like our life. Saying goodbye to people is always hard—saying goodbye to Clemont, Serena and Bonnie was… really hard, from what I remember—but we all have our own journeys to take. What matters is that we’re still friends when they’re over.”
Brock frowned, but he couldn’t come up with an answer before a shining green light appeared in the orchard, and Pikachu tugged at Ash’s hair. “Pikapi?”
“Hm? Oh, time to go,” he said, and squeezed Brock’s shoulder once before beginning to walk backward. “I don’t say it enough in this time, so… thanks for everything Brock. You’re the closest thing I have to a big brother, and a great friend. I’ll see you in a few years, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” he said, lifting a hand. “Stay as safe as you can.”
“Egh, it’ll be easier from now on. I’m about to go catch a dragonite, remember?” he asked, and then winked before turning and jogging into the woods. “Bye!”
“Pikachu!” Pikachu added, twisting around to wave.
Brock watched them disappear out of sight, and tried not to feel like he was being left behind.
“That’s a dragonite!” Delys exclaimed, over Shelley and Cheryl’s relieved sobbing.
“Uh, yeah, Tini took care of Shelley, down in the caves,” Ash said blankly, because he had no other explanation and his horrible feeling that Tini hadn’t really planned to get Shelley back to the surface wasn’t something they needed to know just now.
“Thank you so much for finding her,” Cheryl suddenly burst out, staring up over Shelley’s shoulder. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if anything happened to her!”
“No problem,” he said. “I’m just glad everything worked out.”
“Thanks to you and your dragonite,” she said, and then gasped, eyes widening.
“My – oh, no, Tini isn’t –” He paused, a flash of green light catching his eye. He looked up, and then flinched, realising he could see Celebi flitting through the trees behind the emergency workers’ truck. It paused just long enough to catch his eyes and wink, then flitted out of sight. He got the hint. “I’m… really sorry, but I think I have to go.”
“What? But we didn’t thank you!” Cheryl got up, hefting Shelley to keep hold of her as she stood. “At least tell us where you’re from, so we can –!”
But Ash was already running, only pausing long enough to wave. “Take care of Shelley and Tini! Good luck! Bye!”
“Pikachu!” Pikachu added, barely breaking stride as it jumped onto Ash’s hip and then up onto his shoulder. “Pika!”
Too late – Ash ran into the treeline, almost right smack into Celebi, and was then unceremoniously shoved through a bright green light.
A moment later, Ash stepped out the other side, Pikachu objecting from its place on his shoulder as he stumbled over the last step. He had time to blink and turn, watching the light vanish, before Delys and her friends appeared in the trees behind him.
Judging by their gaping, he was a lot more recognisable to them now.
“Kapikachu!” Pikachu greeted, enjoying their stares more than it should have.
“Are you looking for a kid?” he asked, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “One just went sprinting through here like an absol was on his tail. Did something happen?”
Delys in particular looked like the ground had opened up in front of her. Again. “A-Ash K-K-K-”
“Ketchum,” he supplied. “Here to pick up a dragonite. I don’t suppose you’ve seen one around here, have you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he walked past them and into the clearing, smiling kindly at the still-crying Shelley and Cheryl before turning his full attention on Tini. It frowned, obviously recognising something the humans couldn’t see, but he just smiled and extended a hand.
“Pika pikachu,” Pikachu said, shifting from Ash’s shoulder to his head. “Pi Pikapi pika-chu.”
Tini didn’t comment, or lose its quiet frown. But it did reach out and take the offered hand. And then it took a shaky step forward, moving up alongside its new trainer.
“Come on,” said Ash. “Let’s go see the world.”
Ash was oddly quiet as they headed back to town, his eyes on the trees around them. But it was good in a way, since it left Brock free to watch him, thinking back over everything he’d learned about the future and what the older Ash hadn’t said.
If he asked, he suspected Ash would tell him about the dragonite. Maybe talk about going to look for a kid. He wouldn’t mention how he’d gotten the dead children out of the caves, or offer any more explanation than the older one had. Probably wouldn’t explain what was bothering him, either. Pikachu might have, but Brock couldn’t understand his own pokemon that well, let alone Ash’s.
Ash didn’t talk about Legendaries, or risking his life, or doing the right thing when it was hard. He tried so hard not to depend on anyone emotionally anymore. Brock wondered if he’d tell anyone how much it hurt to have to give up on his hopeless dream. He wondered if Ash even admitted to himself how much he hated saying goodbye to people.
Ash raised his eyebrows, obvious surprised by the break in the silence. “Yeah, Brock?”
He hesitated, then stopped walking, and after another step, so did Ash, turning to face him with an increasingly worried look. “What? What’s the matter?”
He held up a finger, and then winced at Pikachu. “Could you get down for a second?”
“Pi? Pika?” it asked, but when Brock just continued staring at it, it shrugged and did so, leaving Ash’s shoulder free for Brock to place his hand there.
It was his turn to say what he never said enough.
“You’re a good guy, Ash,” he said seriously. “I’m glad we’re friends.”
Ash stared at him, eyes widening. “W- why would you say that so suddenly? Did something happen? Are you dying? Is this why you really came to visit?”
He grunted, nearly falling over. “No, I’m not –”
“Am I dying? Is that why Professor Sycamore’s here too?” he asked. “I thought he was here for Squishy, but – why am I dying? What happened? Oh, man, is this what Olympia meant? There’s been no green fire! I was promised fire! There was no fire!”
“No one’s dying!” he snapped, and then frowned. “What? What fire? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know about that? So I’m not dying in a blaze of green fire?” he asked, and Brock groaned.
“Stop being you for like five seconds, I’m trying to have a moment here,” he said, and Ash blinked but subsided. Brock frowned at him suspiciously, then tried again. “Five second attention span aside, you’re a good guy. Travelling with you was one of the best times of my life, and I’m never gonna forget it.”
“Uh… It was a lot of fun travelling with you, too,” he said, and after another few moments of worried staring, he smiled warmly. “I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t miss you a lot.”
“Right back at you,” he said, and then paused. This was harder than it should’ve been. He was overthinking it. He’d just do it. He yanked Ash forward, ignored the way the kid stiffened up like cardboard, and gave him a quick, as-manly-as-he-could-make-it hug before shoving him away again. “I’m proud of you. Call home more.”
“Uh,” Ash said, but Brock was too busy trying not to burst into humiliated flames and so turned away, marching onward. He knew Ash too well to think he wasn’t exchanging blank stares with Pikachu.
But he didn’t mind. It was as close as he could get to admitting he loved the guy like a brother too, and Ash was the soppy one in their group of friends. He knew Ash would know what he meant, and he could leave it at that.
Ash would carry on saving the world, one mini-crisis at a time, leaving them all behind. But he at least knew Brock cared, and always would.
He felt okay going back home now.