Title: Rich and Intrepid Souls
Word Count: 3208
Spoilers: "Lucario and the Mystery of Mew", references to Pokemon Chronicles episode 15: "Putting the Air back in Aerodactyl."
Warnings: Non for now. Good for all ages. But this is only the first fic of many in an arc that will eventually contain Palletshipping.
Summary: Ash returns to Pallet town unannounced, and Gary, on a short break from the Saeda Island Institute, has the unfathomable urge to go forth and cheer up. Takes place after movie 8.
Delia Ketchum was a deceptively intelligent woman. She was well aware of the 'innocently naive' aura she exuded to the general public, but such a facade tended to work to her advantage, and she often learned about things that others tried to hide away from her. Things that tended to involve her son, Ash.
So when her son appeared in her doorway just days after she'd spoken to him about his adventures in the Hoenn region, it didn't take more than a minute for her to take in the tired eyes and pale face and realize something else, something big, had happened to her precious baby boy. Her natural curiosity and protective instincts wanted to know who or what had tried to harm her child. The maternal side overrode those instincts and sent her son upstairs for a hot shower and an early bedtime, after forcing some home-made soup down his throat. There'd be time enough to find out the details later.
"He just showed up last night?"
Gary Oak tilted his head, continuing to brush Umbreon's fur in smooth, even strokes. His grandfather's incredulous voice drifted through the open door that lead to the ranch yard. Gary had been in Pallet for a couple of days now, visiting his grandfather. Soon after his success with revitalizing Aerodactyl at the lab on Saeda Island, Dara had shoved him out the door, saying he owed his grandfather a proper report - and a proper visit. It figured it had something to do with the paid vacation time he'd earned but neglected to use - the HR lady at the lab was always ranting about things like that - but whatever the case, he was glad he'd come home. Arcanine and Umbreon were his constant companions, but he'd nearly forgotten how much he'd missed all his other pokemon who lived on the professor's ranch.
"I thought he was with Brock, Max and May in the Hoenn region?"
Gary glanced thoughtfully at the door. It sounded like Ash was back in Pallet town, ahead of schedule. Umbreon barked, jolting his attention back to her, and he grinned apologetically, resuming their daily grooming session.
"I see... have you made an appointment to see Doctor Paulson?"
Doctor Paulson was the only family practitioner in Pallet Town. He had been both pediatrician and later on, the family doctor for the Oaks and the Ketchums, as well as everyone else in town. He pet Umbreon gently on the head as he shifted her off him and stood up. He made his way into the living room and stood silently, waiting for his grandfather to finish his call.
"I see... I'll drop by later Delia, and give him a look-over. He's probably just tired from traveling, as he told you... I promise, I'll be there shortly. I'll see you then. Goodbye."
"Ash is back?" Gary asked curiously. Down by his feet, Umbreon squeezed past him and headed for the kitchen, where she knew Tracy would give her treats if she begged. "Is he okay?"
"I'm not sure," Professor Oak said, furrowing his brow. "Delia spoke with him less than a week ago - he never mentioned coming back to Pallet so soon. And no one was with him."
"Maybe someone was hurt," Gary suggested, frowning. "I can call the Pewter City gym and see if they've heard from Brock."
"What's going on?" Tracy came out of the kitchen in time to overhear Gary talking. His hands held a tray of Pokemon snacks that he set down, automatically handing one to Umbreon who accepted it eagerly, taking it across the room to finish by her bowl. "What was that about Brock?"
"Ash came back last night without warning," Gary told him somberly. "A week ago he was traveling with Brock, May and Max, but no one was with him. I was wondering if someone might have been hurt."
"I'll call the Pewter Gym," Tracey offered instantly. "It's late enough in the morning that they should be open."
Gary nodded, and Tracy picked up the phone. "I'm gonna head over to see Ash," he said. "I've got my cell phone - call me if you find out anything."
Tracy gave him the thumbs up, and his grandfather nodded. "I'll be along after I finish examining the last of the grass pokemon group I brought in today."
Gary gave a nonchalant wave and headed off, Umbreon instantly at his side. He was a little surprised at the amount of concern he seemed to be feeling over Ash, but they'd been on much better terms over the past few months. They'd spent a lot of time over the years arguing - admittedly, he tended to start most of them by insulting the younger boy - but then came that whole bonding experience on the dam against Team Rocket. Ash had always had his respect (regardless of how he chose to treat him) but he'd never really showed it. Still, after all they'd both been through, he liked to think that the two of them had at least tentatively renewed their old vow of friendship.
The Ketchum residence was in sight. Gary sped up the pace a little bit. Mr Mime was standing on the doorstep, wringing his hands, a worried expression on his normally cheerful face. He didn't even have his favorite broomstick in hand. "Mr Mime?"
"Mime! Mi mi, Mr Mime mime!" The copycat pokemon grabbed his arm and pulled him into the house. "Mime mime, Mr Mime mime!"
Delia stood up from her perch on the sofa as he entered the living room. "Gary! I was expecting your grandfather." She went to him and wrapped her arms around him in a warm hug. "It's good to see you." Stepping back, she turned a worried gaze up at the ceiling, and then looked back at him. "I just don't know what to do, and Ash is refusing to go to the doctor. He says he's not sick but he was so pale last night..."
Her voice trailed off, and Gary touched her arm comfortingly. "I'll go talk to him," he told her calmly. "I'll see if I can get him to talk."
"Oh, thank you," she said gratefully, and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the stairs.
He took the stairs two at a time, jogging the last few to the top. He hadn't been up there in years, but he still remembered which room belonged to Ash. The familiar wood cutout of a pokeball was still hanging on his door. He smiled at it and rapped his knuckles against the faded wood. After a few minutes, Ash's tired voice spoke through.
"Mom, I promise, I'm fine. I'm just tired."
"I'm not your mom, and I don't think I believe you," Gary declared, pushing the door open. He smiled at the shocked look on Ash's face, keeping his own look of shock hidden by sheer will power. Whatever was going on, Delia Ketchum was right - Ash didn't look well at all.
His normally thick, spiky hair was dropping limply into his eyes. His face was pale, and the dark circles around his eyes stood out plainly. He'd lost weight, too. Ash, like Gary, was naturally lean, but journeying from region to region helped develop some serious muscle. Muscle that Ash seemed to be missing. His loyal pokemon Pikachu was curled up on the bed next to him, watching him warily. "You look like crap."
Ash blinked, and then scowled lightly at him, thinly veiled amusement creeping into his eyes. "You always know just what to say."
"I'm an Oak," Gary reminded him, closing the door behind him and making his way over to the crowded desk next to Ash's bed. Sitting on the chair, he folded his arms and gave the other boy a cocky grin. "It's a talent."
Ash gave a faint smile at that, a mockery of the usual mega-watt grins he was famous for. Gary narrowed his eyes. "Well?"
"Who died?" Gary demanded. "Don't think we won't find out, mister. Tracy's calling the Pewter Gym right now."
Ash looked completely confused. "Huh? Died?"
"Or whatever. You look like someone died. Your electric rat is here in one piece, so I figured it must be Brock." Pikachu sparked a little at the term 'rat' but an absent pat from his trainer settled him down.
"You think Brock's dead?" Clarity was coming back into Ash's eyes now. "Are you crazy?"
"I think you are not the one in any shape to be asking about the sanity of others," Gary said primly. "So Brock's not dead then, huh? What about Max? May?"
"Nobody's dead!" Ash stared at him like he was losing his mind. It was kind of cute to see that look of wariness take root. "Why would you think someone's dead?"
"I already answered that question." Gary tilted his head, looking at him consideringly. "Can we add short-term memory loss to your list of symptoms?"
Ash sighed and rubbed his face tiredly, the brief energy that had gone through him obviously petering out. "You're nuts," he informed Gary as he lay back against the pillow. "I'm not sick and no one's dead." His voice wavered ever so slightly on that one word, and Gary picked it up instantly. "I just need some sleep. I'll be fine in a couple of days, and be on my way. You know where the door is."
No one was dead. But Gary was positive he'd heard that tiny inflection in the word when Ash had said it, and if no one was actually dead, maybe someone had come darn close. "What happened?"
"...nothing happened, Gary. I just... needed to come home for a bit. That's all."
"That's a load of Taurus-crap." He relished the outraged expression that briefly crossed Ash's face. "You've got your mom all worried, Grandpa's worried, your pal Tracy is worried--hold that thought." Gary pulled out his vibrating cell phone and checked his text messages. Scanning the newest one, he scowled at Ash. "Aaaaand you've got Brock, Max and May worried. Did you really just leave them a note saying you'd catch back up with them next week and leave in the middle of the night?"
"And you say nothing's wrong," Gary scoffed. "So spill it, Ashy-boy. What's got your tail in a knot?"
"Why do you care?" Ash shot back, glaring heatedly at him, and Gary blinked.
"What do you mean, what do I care?" Gary glared right back. "I haven't insulted you in months - heck, I actually complimented you on your Bayleaf when you won that pokeboarding competition!" He couldn't help the pout he could feel forming on his face. "I thought we'd gotten past that whole, 'I hate you' stage."
"A stage you started," Ash muttered, but Gary could see his words had had an effect on the other boy. The stiffness melted away from his arms, the tension draining back to wherever it had come from, and Gary could see him visibly relax. "But yeah, I guess you're right."
"Of course I am." Gary leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. "Let's have it then."
The little blood that was left in Ash's face rushed away, making him look grey in the dim lighting. The smaller boy turned his head aside, looking out the window as though trying to draw extra strength from the view outside. Under his hand, Pikachu wiggled, an undeniably worried expression on his face. He shot a look of his own at Gary. "Pikaaaa," he warned him, letting a single spark fly, puffing out harmlessly in the air. The message was clear: don't upset him.
"Have you ever risked your life for someone?"
Gary blinked, turning his gaze from Pikachu to Ash, who was still staring dreamily out the window. "Huh?"
"Have you ever risked your life for someone?" he repeated. After a minute, Ash lowered his eyes back down to the bedspread, one hand still absently scratching Pikachu behind the ears, the other alternately twisting up the fabric and smoothing it out. "An actual life or death situation?"
Well, he'd demanded. "Kinda," Gary hedged, after a minute. "I mean, Aerodactyl nearly took out the lab when we revived it - I had to tackle Doctor Dara to keep her from getting crushed by a flying table. Do you mean like that?"
"Maybe." Ash looked at him and Gary was taken aback at the haunted look in his eyes. "Sort of. I mean... I had to... I came close, a few weeks ago." He swallowed hard. "Let's just say it spooked me, a little. So I ran home." He smiled wryly. "You always did say I was a mama's boy, after all."
"You always will be," Gary assured him automatically. He did not like how ominous Ash's words sounded. "Define 'close'."
"Did you ever hear the story of 'Sir Aaron and the Tree of Life'?"
Gary frowned, confused. "I've read the bedtime story. It's a nice fairytale, I'll give it that. What's that got to do with you and this apparent 'near-death' encounter?"
"It's not a fairytale," Ash said quietly. "It's a real story, with real people and real pokemon. Sir Aaron died to save the people of the valley, and his queen." Ash closed his eyes and Pikachu 'chaa'd' at him, climbing up to nuzzle his cheek. "He saved his pokemon, Lucario, too. Even if Lucario didn't know it at first."
Gary didn't know quite what to say in response. "Ash..."
Ash continued on as though he hadn't spoken, lost in his own memories. "It all started with a girl named Kid trying to catch a Mew..."
Gary closed the door, pausing to lean against it for a minute with his eyes shut. Then he pushed himself up and went downstairs. Miss Ketchum was in the kitchen, arranging deli meat on sandwich buns for lunch. She turned around as he came in, her eyes hopeful. "Gary? Did he talk to you?" She glanced at the clock. "He must have - you were up there for over an hour. How is he?"
"He's sleeping," Gary said quietly, his mind still reeling over what Ash had told him. "He..." He trailed off, unsure of what to say.
Delia waited expectantly.
Should he tell her? Should she know what her son had been through? Ash hadn't outright said not to but still... Gary looked at Delia Ketchum. Her hands were clasped, her fingers clenched tightly. Lines stood out around her eyes, more numerous then they'd been just a few short years ago. A few strands of light grey hair danced about auburn waves. Tension radiated from her, worry mixing with concern clouding her eyes. She wasn't as young as she used to be, not as young as his memories painted her. Did she need to hear from him that her son had come so close to death it had scared him into coming home?
Gary blew out his breath. No. She didn't need to know; at least, not from him. She didn't need him to tell her that her son was the reincarnation of an old hero, and possessed the power of aura. She didn't need to know that the Tree of Life truly existed - and that it had nearly been destroyed. She didn't need to know that her son had volunteered his life to help strengthen the aura of Lucario to save Mew and the Tree. And she didn't need to know that it hadn't been his choice to break away from that decision - that Lucario had knocked him away from the Aura sphere and sacrificed himself to save Mew - and to spare Ash's life.
It had hit Ash like a freight train a day or so later. The magnitude at what he'd offered up hadn't registered with him at the time. He had been prepared to die. He had offered himself up to the Tree, and had been ready to do whatever it took. Noble deeds indeed, particularly at the time, but when he'd had the chance to calm down and think over what happened... Ash had been spooked by the way he'd so freely tried to kill himself. Heroic or not, it was still a sacrifice from a boy who was more full of life then anyone else Gary had ever known, and his own blood froze at the thought of one day finding out from his grandfather that Ash was dead. The idea was completely unthinkable.
Coming to a decision, Gary smiled weakly at Miss Ketchum. "I think he really is just overworked and under the weather," he said awkwardly, trying to control his urge to fidget. There were just somethings you shouldn't do in life, and lying to the woman who was more of a mother to you then your own was one of them, but he didn't have much of a choice. "He needs some home cooking and some mothering time, you know? I mean, he's always been a mama's boy."
"Indeed," she said, smiling in relief back at Gary. "My Ash has always come straight to me whenever he felt out of sorts. I guess some things never change."
But sometimes things do, Gary thought, a touch sadly, thinking of the lost expression on Ash's face just before he'd passed out from exhaustion. He'd confided that sleep had been a long time in coming to him for several days before his arrival; nightmares of himself dissolving into nothingness, or being torn to shreds by a reddish void had him waking in cold sweats. The innocently naive Ash now seemed like a thing of the past. It made him wonder what else had happened during Ash's travels - made him consider just how much of the rumors that he'd brushed off could actually be closer to the truth then he knew?
There was nothing he could do about that. He couldn't offer his help against the foes of the past. But as Gary watched his friends mother bustle about the kitchen, his thoughts wandered back to the boy upstairs, and he resolved that he'd keep better tabs on his friend in the future. He'd always thought of Ash as being eternal. He didn't like having those perceptions changed so drastically. Brock would probably be a good choice to get information from.
Gary pulled out his phone, waved at Miss Ketchum, and headed outside to place a call of his own. After all, there was no time like the present to prepare for the future.
Feedback always greatly appreciated. Fic number 2 in this as-of-yet unnamed arc will be out shortly.
edit Sept 6, 2008 Changed Pikachu's pronouns from female to male, in compliance with Pokemon Diamond&Pearl, and Battle Dimension.