This chapter is dedicated to my grandad, who passed away on 30th April of this year.
The place was lively, cheerful, a far cry from what the stereotype perpetuated about such facilities, and within its walls radiated a charming cosiness that gave it that homely quality it so needed to possess. It was perfect. Top of the range, of course, as those closest to him had spared no expense. The once great man had done so much for each of them over his long life, after all, and thus it was unanimously agreed that, in this time of repaying their debts to him, as it were, he deserved nothing less than the very best.
"Okay, so just to reconfirm: that's Samuel Oak, O-A-K?" asked an apron-clad receptionist behind the front desk.
"Yes, that's right," Delia responded.
The receptionist's eyes dropped down to the wheelchair onto which the middle-aged woman was tightly gripping. "You're really going to love it here at Indigo Heights, Professor Oak," she smiled sincerely. "Would you like to see your new room?"
To no-one's surprise, the vacant figure in the chair neither answered nor seemed as if he had even heard.
"I'd like to stay with him for a while, if that's alright," said Delia, which the receptionist approved with a nod, "just to help him settle in."
"Settle?!" Oak suddenly blurted out, though with eyes still fixed on the marble floor. "How am I to settle when I have all those pokémon to feed? Do you know how many tauros there are on the reserve? Tracey! Tracey! Oh, blast it all, boy, where are you when I need you?"
"That 'boy' is a thirty-four-year-old man now, Samuel," Delia clarified calmly. "And he's just over there by the car, see?" She pointed, though the gaunt Pokémon researcher did not look round.
A plump nurse in indigo-coloured overalls appeared from around the corner. "Ah, you must be Mrs. Ketchum," she greeted. "If you'd like to follow me, I'll take you right up to the professor's room."
She offered to take control of the wheelchair, but Delia's benevolent nature would not let her relinquish the hold she had on her dear old friend. As she and the nurse made a move towards the lifts, a cavalcade of box-laden adults clashed and stumbled their way into the foyer.
"Ash, your end's really dipping down," puffed the beautiful red-headed woman holding up the opposite end of a hefty mahogany bureau.
"I kn-know," he panted. "It's r-really heavy, Misty…"
The pained man adjusted his grip only for his right hand to rest accidently on top of Misty's.
"Aah!" she yelped, coming out in a hot flush. "Get off my hand, you freak!"
Ash's face turned just as red. "I'm not doing it on purpose! If I let go I'm going to drop this!"
"You BETTER not drop it, Ash Ketchum, or I'll-"
As was the case more often than not, the pair's bickering was neutralised by one frustrated-looking man several years their senior.
"Guys, please, not today," Brock sighed as he and Tracey took the heavy cabinet from them and walked on. With the profound maturity that their thirty years on this earth had taught them, Ash and Misty opted to take their friend's advice and put a stop to the arguing there and then – by sticking their tongues out at each other.
"Here we are," chirped the nurse once they reached an empty bedroom on the top floor. "As requested, we picked out the room with the best view of the sea just for you. You can also see Mt. Silver straight ahead, and off to the right there is the Indigo Stadium."
"It's beautiful," Delia said in awe. "Look, Samuel, you can see all of Indigo Plateau from here. And ooh, I think that's New Bark Town in the distance! Isn't it lovely?"
The man's cloudy eyes scanned the scenery before him. At one point, the vistas would have held countless memories of childhood adventures, groundbreaking research expeditions and unparalleled displays of pokémon battling. Now, however, the landscape was little more than a pretty canvas.
"I want to go home," he wheezed in a near-unrecognisable monotone. Delia and the nurse looked at each other with concern.
"Samuel…" the former began, her voice wavering in worry. "This is your home now. Don't you remember we talked about this? Tracey and Gary are going to take excellent care of the lab-"
"What lab?! I don't know any lab! I'm talking about home! Goodness, she'll be worried sick by now."
Delia blinked. "Who?"
He looked up and smiled. "My mother. Take me to her, will you?"
The words cut her like a knife, and she had to look away before any tears fell. She knew crying in front of him would only do more harm. The nurse seemed to understand, giving the distressed woman a courteous nod before showing the ailing professor around the room. A few feet away from the door stood the remainder of the group, mere spectators to a scene they had witnessed time and time again, and could do nothing to influence.
"I'll never get used to seeing him like this," Gary spoke up, the first words he had said since they arrived. "He has one of the greatest minds the world has ever known. But time, it seems, will be the unmaking of us all."
"That's a nice line, Gary," Misty commented. "You've definitely inherited your grandpa's poeticism."
He grinned bashfully. "Dawn says that, too. Personally, I think I'm better off sticking to research."
A period of silence passed, in which only the muffled nattering of the nurse could be heard.
"He shouldn't be like this," Gary continued. "Anyone'd look at him and think he was ninety, not seventy. But then, I guess a lifetime in a laboratory will do that to you, huh?"
The amount of science equipment and old keepsakes of the professor's required multiple trips back down to the cars, which Brock, Gary and Tracey mostly saw to. While they hurried around, Ash found himself shuffling further and further towards the threshold of the room, unable to tear his eyes away. Misty sensed what was going on and felt compelled to stay with him, saying nothing but hoping that her silent presence would be a small comfort anyway.
Professor Oak was the closest thing Ash had to a father. He had been there for every birthday, every Christmas, had broken up fights between Ash and Gary, had taught them so much about pokémon and the world and all its wonders. He'd been a great friend to Ash's mom, too – a less oblivious part of him even thought they might get together one day, as bizarre as that image was. Perhaps this closeness was why he had never wanted to know exactly what ailed him: to let him keep hoping there was a cure rather than knowing for sure there was none. Those were memories he'd cherish forever, especially if there were no more like them to come; because looking across at the withered and dazed spectre in that wheelchair felt heartbreakingly unlike looking at the wise old pokémon expert he had known all his life.
For a moment, the young man thought he was imagining things – but the looks of shock on the faces of everyone around him told him otherwise. Seconds later, it happened again.
"Ash…are you there?"
Delia wept silently again, but this time with a kind of secret joy. She politely signalled for the nurse to give Ash and Professor Oak some privacy, and followed her out of the room after touching her son lovingly on the shoulder. Misty prepared to leave as well, but turned around at the last second to do something entirely impulsive, and kiss her best friend on her cheek. With a thumping heart, sweaty palms and now a blazing red face, Ash knelt down in front of the professor's wheelchair and smiled nervously.
"I'm here, Professor."
The old man's face lit up. "Ash, my boy, I thought that was you!"
The specificity and eloquence of his speech was beyond flattering. Never once during his rare but welcome moments of clarity had Professor Oak ever asked for Ash personally.
"Erm, how do you feel?" Ash asked, at a loss for something more interesting to say.
"Oh, never mind me, Ash. I'm much more interested in how you're doing! Not many trainers can boast being the reigning champion of two regions simultaneously, eh?"
Ash scratched his head. "Ehehe, yeah, it keeps me on my toes, alright."
"I'll say!" He paused to cough harshly for at least ten uninterrupted seconds. "Ahem, please excuse me. Oh, er, what were we talking about again?"
"You mentioned me being the bi-regional champion," he prompted with a sympathetic smile.
"I did? O-Oh, yes, I did! My, I never thought I'd see the day that little Ash Ketchum became a pokémon master," Oak said brightly. "Not that that's a reflection on your skill level, of course. You are, after all, an exceptional pokémon trainer. I'm just getting on a bit, eheheaackh-aaahoo!"
When he began to splutter again, Ash handed his former mentor a glass of water, which he readily gulped down.
"Aaaahh. Thank you, my boy, that's much better. Now, where was I…ah! I also heard that Misty was recently named Kanto's strongest gym leader! What a remarkable achievement – you must pass on my congratulations."
"Yeah, it's really something," he agreed. "Although, Misty's here, Professor, I can go get her if you wa-"
Ash stopped the moment he saw the professor jerk his bony hand upwards to quiet him. His face had turned serious, and his bushy white eyebrows were tightly knitted together.
"Actually, Ash, that's just reminded me of what I wanted to discuss with you." He looked around as far as the chair and his fragile bones would allow. "But first, I wonder if you could do me a small kindness."
"Uh, yeah, of course!" Ash answered without having to think.
"The black trunk, by the door. There's a little box inside."
The pokémon master crawled over to the doorway and immediately stuck his hand inside the shiny black suitcase he found there. It took a bit of searching, but Ash eventually managed to locate what looked like a small, palm-sized square box in one of the side compartments.
"Is this it?" he asked over his shoulder.
Oak nodded. "Open it."
Shrugging, Ash carefully snapped open the hinged lid to reveal…
"A ring?" he said, confused. The professor beckoned him back over and gently took the opal-encrusted gold band into his own hands.
"This is an engagement ring passed down my family for generations," he explained fondly. "It once belonged to my great-great-great-grandfather, and has belonged to each male firstborn descendent since. I am now the owner, but as you can see, I never used it."
In the old man's eyes manifested a certain wistfulness, a yearning for thoughts of a bygone time. "I always thought – well, hoped, really – that I'd…I'd give it to your mother someday…but I…"
He shook his head, both sadly and angrily, as he looked back down at the ring. Ash did not interrupt his musing.
"Ohh…I'm sorry, dear boy, forgive my tired prate. Stupid old fool I was."
His eyes met with Ash's as he thrust the jewelled circle into the young man's hand. "Here. I want you to have it."
Ash blinked dumbfoundedly. "Me? But I thought Gary-"
"Gary's the next in line, yes. But the truth is, Ash, you've been more of a son to me than anyone else ever has. Delia and yourself – I love you both as if you were my own flesh and blood. Please, take it."
Words utterly escaped Ash in that very moment. All these momentous things he was just learning of for the first time…in the grand scheme of things, his status as champion of both the Indigo and Manalo conferences suddenly seemed rather trivial. And that was okay.
"I…I'd love to, Professor," he said, "but…I'm not getting married!"
"Not right now, maybe. But when you're ready, I have a strong feeling Misty will say yes."
"M-Misty?!" Ash coughed, blushing fiercely. "It's nothing! I mean, er, there's nothing going on between, well…I mean, we don't like each other in that…uhhhh…"
"Oh, come now," Oak chuckled. "I may be old, son, but I'm not blind. You and Misty are simply meant to be."
Once again, the rumbled Ash was completely flummoxed.
"And, as rich as this may seem coming from me, neither of you are exactly spring torchic. Haven't you two run from the truth long enough?"
With a slight groan, the frail former researcher reached out to clamp his hand on Ash's shoulder.
"Now, take this old man's advice. Quickly, before I…before I go again…"
Ash nodded, leaning in closer. Those last words caused him to concentrate all the more intensely.
"My one regret in life is that I could never find it in myself to come forward with my feelings. If you really love Misty – if you truly desire her – then you march out that door right now and get her, and don't look back. Let nothing distract you or cause you to hesitate. Don't make the same mistake I did, my boy. Don't wait."
The hand slid off his shoulder, and like flicking a switch, Professor Oak fell silent. His eyes glazed over, and his head limply turned to face the window, where a flock of fledgling pidgeotto were soaring gracefully by. Ash clenched his fist protectively around the ring and rose resolutely to his feet, the powerful words passed on by his father-in-all-but-name having shaken him to the core.
"I won't, Professor," he said on his way out of the room. "I won't."
Barely a minute passed, and the freshly closed door to Professor Oak's room burst open once more.
"Just me, Professor!" gushed the nurse, taking a hold of the wheelchair's handles. "I thought you might want to have a nice tour of your new home. Off we go, now!"
She wheeled him carefully around and slowly out of the open door. The hall smelt of gracidea flowers, and there were framed paintings of various pokémon hung along the walls. What caught his attention more than any of that, however, was the sight of a man and a woman, so familiar yet just beyond his recollection, simply talking:
"Did you tell Pikachu when you'd be getting back?"
"Eh, I gave him a ballpark time. My mom let him have the ketchup bottle before we left so he should be happy enough."
The man then looked uncomfortable for a second or two, though strangely seemed to shake it off straight after as if reaffirming his next actions in his head.
"Hey, Misty, do you think I could talk to you somewhere alone for a sec?"
Perhaps it was the question, or perhaps it was the infectious energy of seeing the two skip curiously away together, but for the most fleeting of moments, Professor Samuel Oak remembered. The talk with Ash, the passing of the gift, the final words of wisdom, it was all back, and he could tell then that it was not for nothing. The boy wouldn't let him down, that much he knew. And though he lacked the power to declare it orally, a smile shone brightly in those deep, cloudy eyes, coupled with a heartening thought that sent him right off into a peaceful sleep.
That's my boy.