When Giovanni and Brock arrived back at the Viridian Gym entrance, Ash came out to greet them with his usual high levels of unabashed enthusiasm. Brock did not respond in kind. His head slumped, and he barely acknowledged his friend’s presense at all.
“Listen, I should probably get back to the training room,” he said, staring at the ground.
“Huh?” Ash tilted his head. “But you…just got back from a training session.”
“Mmm,” Brock replied, then snaked his way back into the gym without further comment.
Ash watched him go, the smile he’d rushed outside with now long gone. Lines of worry creased his forehead.
“Brock seems…really down,” he observed.
“Indeed,” Giovanni answered, being less concerned with Brock’s mental health and more focused on whether or not he’d be reliable when the battle with Sabrina started. Perhaps learning Torment had been a bit too much? Giovanni scoffed at the thought. What was he supposed to teach him, then? Tickle?
“I wonder what I should do,” Ash said. Giovanni expected the lad to continue staring off into the distance, as he often did, but instead he turned his gaze to his father.
Blast! Was that question intended for me to actually answer? Technically, it was not a question, merely a thought pondered aloud. But that fact did not dissuade Ash as he continued staring his father down, waiting for a reply.
“Erm…that is…” Giovanni broke eye contact, trying to look around for some way to escape the suddenly awkward conversation. This wasn’t like him. Ash was handing over a prime opportunity for further manipulation. He should seize it immediately. Say something fatherly to solidify that naive sense of trust Ash was building towards him.
“Well, then,” he said with a cough. “It seems reasonable to me that if your friend is feeling unhappy, you should do something to remedy that. If you wish to.”
Ash looked confused. “Remedy? You mean, like, get him a present or something?”
Giovanni was about to reply that he’d meant no such thing, and Ash’s suggestion was one of the stupidest he’d ever heard fall from the boy’s lips. Impressively, he managed to keep his thoughts to himself.
Meanwhile, Ash rubbed his chin, no doubt trying to think of what sort of present Brock would even appreciate given his circumstances. Even Giovanni, who tended not to be the sensitive type, sensed that something like a Poke-nip plant wouldn’t be received well.
“Maybe we could take a vacation,” Ash said. “That’s always cheered him up before.”
“Out of the question,” Giovanni said.
Ash frowned but didn’t argue the point. Surely he realized that Giovanni had a reputation to protect. Randomly sending his Pokémon on pleasurable excursions clashed with that reputation to an almost laughable extent.
Instead of offering an alternate suggestion, however, Ash’s face lit up with an unspoken brainstorm. “Wait a sec. I think I’ve got something else,” he said, making a snapping motion with his ghostly, clawed fingers. A motion, not an actual sound. Perhaps the most devastating loss from his merger. Really, how did one command Team Rocket without some well-placed snapping?
“Are you…going to elaborate on this ‘something else’ of yours?”
“Nah,” Ash said, finally entering the gym proper rather than lingering outside the doors. “But thanks for the chat. Oddly enough, it really helped.”
We did not chat, Giovanni almost replied, but Ash was already hurrying down the hall.
Misty found him inside his room twenty minutes or so later, which surprised her. He seemed to be writing or doodling something at his desk, probably the least active she’d seen him in a while. Ash was never the type to sit around waiting for something to happen. Generally speaking, he was the one going around and making things happen.
“What are you up to?” she asked as Ash turned and smiled at her. Another oddity. She hadn’t spotted him looking cheerful in a long while, and it made her feel good to see it. But when she approached to look at his writing, he just got a mischievous smile and pulled the paper closer, covering it with his arms.
“Just planning a little surprise,” he said.
Misty’s smile waned. “Oh? What kind of surprise? Don’t tell me it’s Giovanni’s birthday.”
“Ha!” Ash belted out with unnatural force. “That’s a good one! Nah, this surprise is for Brock.”
Misty frowned. It had taken months for Brock to come out of his shell. While she was sure Ash meant well with whatever this was, there was a better-than-average chance it would have the opposite effect.
“Come on,” she said. “Tell me what it is. I promise I won’t tell.”
As she suspected, Ash caved immediately. “Okay, okay,” he said. “But you can’t even hint, okay?”
“I’m sending a letter to Pewter City. To Brock’s family,” Ash said, grinning. “I’m sure they miss him, and I know he misses them a lot. I think it would do all of them a lot of good to see each other again.”
Misty’s stomach soured. Yes, this was exactly the type of thing she’d been worried about.
“Don’t worry. I’m mentioning he got a merger,” he added quickly. As if that would help the situation.
“Ash,” she tried to say as gently as she could. “I know mergers are becoming a bit more public knowledge now, but people still envision merged humans as looking like Jessie or James at their highest concentration. No one outside of Team Rocket has any idea what it looks like when it goes to Brock’s level. Plus, have you thought about what Brock wants?”
“He talks about his brothers and sisters all the time and how much he misses them,” Ash said. “So it’s pretty obvious he wants to see them.”
This was becoming difficult. “Ash, think about it. You know how he gets around us. He hates how obvious it is what he’s lost. Plus, he can’t even speak to them.”
“That’s why we have Aquafeles,” Ash said. “Or, heck, you or I could translate.”
Misty was almost impressed. It had taken him forever to use Meowth’s new name consistently. Seeing her attempts to dissuade him were getting nowhere, though, she tried a different approach. “Why don’t you at least restrict the invitation to his parents and his oldest brother?” she suggested.
Ash thought about this for all of five seconds. “Yeah, I might do that. Thanks for the suggestions, Misty.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, turning to show herself out. It seemed the easiest solution.
Behind her, Ash gleefully finished his letter with a flourish of his pencil, then neatly folded it up and stuffed into an envelope.
Misty breathed deeply and tried to reassure herself. No way were the Harrisons going to find baby-sitting for their eight other kids. They’d thank Ash for the invite and go about their business. At least, she could only hope so.
Kyle was sitting at his computer, eating a grilled cheese sandwich he’d made himself. It wasn’t very good, which meant he’d more or less been nibbling at it, so the cheese was now getting cold and way less gooey. Lexi was across the room, alternating between tending to some of the new arrivals in the lab and fussing over her Pokémon. They had some Spearows, which were under Kyle’s care, but they’d recently gotten some Oddishes and Bellsprouts of various color shades, and Lexi was ecstatic. Whether it was a Pokémon or a plain, boring shrub, if it had leaves, Lexi loved it.
Next to the countertop where Lexi was working was the fancy, industrial-looking lab door. Which was now opening. And which the boss’s son was now stepping through.
“Excuse me?” he asked as he entered the lab.
“Y-yes, sir, Mr. Ash, sir!” Kyle returned his sandwich to his plate so as to better look like he was paying attention. Maybe it would grow tastier as it sat on the plate, though he doubted it. Why couldn’t Kyle have one person in his life who could make a decent grilled cheese sandwich?
“Um, just ‘Ash’ is fine,” the boss’s son replied, rubbing the back of his head. “I came to ask about your Spearows. Didn’t you tell me you were training them to fly to the different gyms around Kanto?”
“Uh, yeah. I-I mean, yes, I did tell you that.” Kyle straightened as Ash searched his pockets for something. He was surprised his boss’s son remembered his Spearow Mail Project. Kyle had listed it along with dozens of other random thoughts that had occurred to him while Ash was on surveillance duty and Kyle was on trying-to-identify-the-mystery-kid-in-the-video duty. He didn’t remember half the things he’d talked about, only that he’d been bored while talking. And he hadn’t made much progress on the mystery kid, either.
“Ah, here we go!” Ash finally said and handed over a slightly bent envelope. “Could you get one of your Spearows to take this to the Pewter City Gym?”
Lexi looked up from where she’d been pruning her plants. “You know we have regular mail?” she asked. “And email?”
“Yeah, but Spearows delivering mail is cool,” Kyle replied.
“He is right,” Ash chimed in.
Lexi sighed and went back to her plant pruning. Kyle took the letter and sat it beside his computer monitor, which showed a blurry picture of Mystery Kid’s Pokémon. It didn’t look like anything Kyle had seen before, which meant it had to be pretty rare. Which meant if he could figure out what it was, he might be able to narrow down its trainer. But he couldn’t do the first one without a good pic. The tech department told him they could only enhance a grainy image so well, and that had been disappointing. He picked up his now-colder sandwich.
“Oh, hey, it’s a Silvally,” Ash said, pointing to the screen.
Kyle dropped the sandwich. “A…what?”
“Silvally,” Ash repeated, his voice so matter-of-fact that Kyle wondered if this was a super common Pokémon no one had bothered to tell him about. “There was one in the Alola Championships. They’re pretty amazing. You should check it out if you have time.” He adjusted his hat and turned to leave. “Anyway, thanks for sending the letter. See you later!”
Lexi and Kyle both could only stare slack-jawed as Ash closed the fancy, industrial door behind him.
Lola Harrison was polishing the rocks in the gym’s main battle arena when Flint walked in.
“Looks like we got a letter,” he said, waving an envelope in the air. He lowered his arm and stared at his wife in confusion. “Are you polishing the rocks, again?”
“Obviously,” she said, standing up and wiping her brow. “See how sparkly they are? It looks so much nicer than it did before.”
“But…they’re rocks,” Flint said.
“Which is no excuse for them to look like they were just dug out of the ground,” she said. “And anyway, what’s this about a letter? I got the mail already today. At least, I think I did.” She paused to ponder over her activities so far today. There’d been training with the Pokémon, trimming the hedges outside the gym. Yes, she was very sure she’d checked the mailbox then. Lola might have been flaky at times, but she ran a tight, mostly organized, mostly rock gym.
“Erm, yes, dear,” Flint said. “But this didn’t come in the mailbox. A Spearow dropped it off.”
“A Spearow?” Now Lola was curious. She took the envelope and tore it open at once. Her eyebrows rose and she squealed with delight as she read the opening.
“It’s about Brock!” she said.
“Brock?” Flint’s face brightened as well. “He hasn’t contacted us in ages. I thought he was mad at us or something.”
“Well, it’s from his friend, Ash, but it says Brock wants to visit with us and Forrest at the Viridian City Gym.”
“Forrest?” Flint asked. He was really fond of repeating his children’s names today, it seemed. “What about Yolanda? And Tommy? And Cindy? And Suzie, and–”
“It just says us and Forrest,” Lola said. “Apparently visiting space is a bit tight over there.”
“Huh. And why is Brock in Viridian again?” Flint questioned. He had now walked over to one of her newly polished rocks, and she didn’t like the way he was getting his dirty work boots so close to it.
She shot him a warning glare.
He noticed straight away and backed up. “I…erm, guess it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “We can’t go and leave the kids, especially taking Forrest with us.”
“Of course we can go,” Lola said cheerfully. She gathered up her cleaning supplies and plopped them into Flint’s hands. That way he knew for sure he’d be scrubbing the rocks twice as clean if he got a smudge on her hard work. “The gym is closed this week for renovations anyway. And it just so happens that I have a gift certificate for fifty hours of free child care from Pewter City’s ‘All-Day Nanny Help Center.'”
“Wow,” Flint mused. “That is a convenient thing for you to have in this exact situation.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Lola giggled. “Come on, dear. Let’s go tell Forrest and start packing.”