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The trip back to Cameran Castle wasn't nearly as eventful as their way to the Tree of Beginning had been. As she drove, Kidd looked over the rear-view mirror once in a while to check on her passengers. May and Max were talking excitedly about the different scenery they were passing by,— something they haven't pay attention to their first time around due to the sense of urgency. At the other side, Ash was tuning them out looking through the window with an expression of contentment, — Pikachu sitting safely on his lap.

Regardless of the happy mood, Kidd couldn't help thinking something was off about that picture. Even if Ash looked considerably more at ease, there was something not quite right. And when she came to think of it, she noticed that she had a hard time mentally portraying this calmed kid as the same hyperactive kid she met during the tournament. Knowing what had transpired within the heart of the Tree of Beginning, she didn't really blame him either. The reminder made Kidd frown at the memory. Ash had neglected to tell his friends about what he had done to help Mew, and she hadn't said anything either, believing it wasn't her place to do so, but that left her slightly worried about the young trainer.

When confronted about his tiredness, he had dismissed it saying he just needed a good meal to get back in shape. But Kidd new it wasn't that simple. Even when Lucario had taken the burden for himself at the very end, she was certain that Ash had still used his energy to dangerous levels. So she made it a point to keep an eye on him at least until they were back in town.

“Do you see any problem ahead?”

Brock's sudden question got her out of her musings making her blinked in confusion at the question.

“You’ve been frowning at the road for half a minute now,” Brock explained at her questioning look.

“Oh. No, all is clear,” she assured him, forcing herself to smile broadly to make her point clearer. “Thankfully, the weather is nice and sunny today, so we won't be worrying about any fog on our way back to the castle.”

Brock smiled back. “That's good to know. That means we’ll arrive a lot sooner than expected.”

Kidd nodded her agreement before taking another quick look through the mirror. Ash had started to doze off, losing his battle against his weariness and was now leaning his head against the window. Pikachu, not wanting to wake his trainer up, curled up against his chest and continued looking out the window in silence.

“He did something reckless, didn't he?”

Realizing that she had been frowning again, Kidd tried self-consciously to smooth her expression before giving a quick glance at Brock’s way. “I reckon that's a common occurrence, then?”

Brock snorted in bitter amusement. “Enough to be considered normal,” he stated. “Doesn't mean we don't get worried every time.”

Kidd scowled at that, mulling about how much she should say before she finally spoke.

“Mew got really sick after it saved us from the tree's immune system, and in consequence the tree started deteriorating too. Lucario wasn't able to heal Mew alone, so Ash volunteered to help. If it wasn't for the two of them, Mew would have died and the tree’s ecosystem would have collapsed in itself killing every living being within it.”

Kidd paused to let the information sink in, and couldn't help arching and eyebrow when Brock's only reaction was a nod of understanding, as if he hadn't expected less of the gravity of their situation.

“So you’re worried that Ash might not be as fine as he’s leading on after something like that,” Brock concluded.

“It was quite the task,” Kidd admitted. Noticing how Brock’s conclusion suggested she was only talking about Ash’s emotional state, she decided to throw him a hint. “Still, I don’t think it’s anything life threatening.”

Brock frowned at her last statement, and with that, Kidd knew he had understood she was talking about something more physical. She wasn’t going to say what exactly had happened, but she thought it wise to have an extra couple of eyes looking out for Ash.

Brock seemed to understand that, letting the topic drop with a thoughtful expression.

 

They reached town quite a few hours later, and the two siblings practically jumped off the vehicle in relief at being allow to stretch and move their legs after the long journey.

“I’ll never complain about walking ever again!” May exclaimed.

“I highly doubt that,” her brother teased with a knowing smirk, earning a glare his way which he immediately ignored. “Hey Ash! Let’s go check– oh.”

That’s when Max finally noticed his friend had yet to wake up; Pikachu still curled up in his arms, not daring to move. Kidd shared a look with Brock before he stepped up.

“You two go on ahead, I’ll wake him up and catch up with you,” he said with a smile.

They hesitated a little before finally agreeing and walking away, already immersed in another sibling bickering.

The moment they were out of sight, Brock drop the smile and walked back to the vehicle; Kidd close behind him. It took him a few tries, but finally Brock managed to shake Ash awake. He looked really out of it, but the moment Brock let him know they had arrived, Ash straighten in place and tried to shake the sleepiness away by stretching his back and arms.

“Everything ok?” Brock asked, not bothering to hide his worry.

“Yeah, just a little tired from the trip,” Ash was fast to answer as he climbed down his seat.

Kidd didn’t buy the excuse for a second and let him know as much by sending him a disbelieving look right over Brock’s shoulder, causing Ash to cringe slightly. She half expected him to cave in at that moment and let at least the older of his friends know the truth, but she soon learned it wasn’t going to happen without some serious prodding.

“Man, I’m really hungry! I’m sure I’ll feel even better once we get to eat something,” he said instead, having averted his eyes towards the pokémon that had just perched on his shoulder. “Isn’t that right, buddy?”

Pikachu looked at his trainer in what seemed to be fond resignation before nodding with a cheerful smile. Kidd could tell Brock was trying really hard not to show his aggravation at the obvious change of subject even as he nodded.

“Let’s go find May and Max then, so we can decide what to eat.”

It turned out, they didn’t have to think too hard, Queen Ilene received them eagerly, looking honestly happy to see they had succeeded in their mission, and was fast to offer them accommodations to spend the night at the castle, which included a very generous meal that was more than enough to satisfy even a hungry Snorlax. Feeling the exhaustion hitting them all, they accepted the offer readily.

That’s how, later that night, Kidd found herself sitting on the roof directly above her provisional room, bringing Banks up to date with everything that had happened.

“So basically this would be the third time you tell this story,” Banks was chuckling over her communicator. “At least you know what ‘real’ job you could take if this whole business fails.”

“As exciting as being a storyteller sounds, I think I’ll stick with what I do for a bit longer,” Kidd replied with a smirk. “Besides, you are the only one who got the extended version.”

“Oh, I feel privileged!”

Kidd laughed at the slight joke, but was fast to lose her mirth at remembering why she had to edit out quite a few details the first two times she had to explain the events that had transpired to begin with. The second time had come at dinner, when she thought it only fair to let Queen Ilene know what had really happened to Sir Aaron and Lucario. By previous consideration, that version of the story was basically the same she had told Brock, minus the hints towards Ash’s health. It was the only thing she could think of to avoid placing Ash in an unwanted position; regardless of his reasons. Not that it helped much.

Although apparently cheerful, Ash had been uncharacteristically quiet during the whole tale, only speaking up or nodding when prompted, to the point where even May and Max were able to catch that something was not entirely right, sharing a confused look at his obvious sluggishness. Kidd thought it was nothing less than a miracle that he hadn’t fallen face first on his plate before dinner was over.

“Something is still bothering you,” Banks broke through her musings.

“Is it normal for an eleven year old boy to act as if nothing has happened even though the experiences he went through were pretty much life threatening?”

“Hm… are you talking about that Ash boy?”

“He just refused to tell his friends the whole story, dismissing it as none important even when it’s obvious he’s still being physically affected by the aftermath of what he had to do.”

“Huh…” Banks seemed to mull that over before replying. “Boys have weird ways to care about others, don’t you think?”

Kidd did a double take at that. “What do you mean?”

“You said he jumped at the chance to help Lucario, not even thinking it twice about his own wellbeing,” Banks started. “That means he cares a lot about others, and will do what it is needed to protect them, never mind what happens to him in the process.”

“And what does that have to do with him not telling them anything?”

“It seems to me, he doesn’t want to give them the burden of that knowledge,” he explained.

“But… not knowing what’s wrong just gets them equally worried,” Kidd just didn’t understand the logic in that.

“I did say it was a weird way of caring,” Banks answered back. “I never said it was effective.”

Kidd huffed at that. It did make sense in a weird way.

The sound of a door opening just next to her room caught her attention to the balcony below. She had expected everyone else to sleep through anything, knowing how exhausting the ordeal had been, so she couldn’t hide her surprise when she saw Ash walking out of his room just taking in the scenery with a passive expression; Pikachu riding comfortably on his head.

“I’ll call you later, Banks,” Kidd whispered.

“Do what you have to do and then go to sleep, we’ll talk tomorrow,” Banks advised.

With a quick affirmation, she cut the communication off before redirecting her attention below.

“Hey, Ash,” she called, causing him to jumped in his place before turning around to face her.

“Oh, hey Kidd.”

“It’s really late already, what are you doing up?” she asked in what she hoped sounded like mild curiosity.

Ash seemed to hesitate, obviously reluctant to answer the question, but before she could tell him he didn’t need to do so if he didn’t feel like it, Ash sighed and spoke up.

“Bad dream…” he sounded a bit embarrassed. “I needed fresh air.”

It was in that moment that Kidd realized she might have been half-misunderstanding Ash’s behavior. In focusing on his physical wellbeing, she had failed to see how the problem wasn’t so much weariness as it was emotional despondency.

Her eyes soften in understanding before climbing down to the balcony, sitting in the railing beside the young trainer and his partner. “Was it about what happened back at the tree’s heart?”

Ash winced as if caught. “Mostly, yeah.”

‘Mostly?’ Kidd was puzzled by this but she knew better than to pry further. “You can talk about it if you want,” she offered instead.

Ash seemed to consider it but shook his head.

“Thanks, but it’s fine,” Ash declined with a light smile that would had been more convincing had Pikachu not being looking at his trainer in worry. “I’ll stop having them after a couple of days.”

Kidd blinked twice a bit put off with his answer. He had said it as if he knew he was right and was trying to reassure her instead the other way around. Somehow, she found herself believed his statement. So when she finally answered, her only reaction was to smile back, huffing in defeat.

It had taken her by surprise how he had handled his emotions after Lucario had passed away and for a moment, she thought it was the shock and adrenaline still acting, but even later on, —once reunited with his friends, —he had refused to crumble to the grief, forcing himself to smile instead. Now it was more than obvious to her that he was just putting up a brave face for the sake of everyone else. Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to confront him about that observation, again feeling like it wasn’t her place to do so.

‘He’ll open up when he’s ready,’ she thought with a resolute nod, then outloud she said. “In that case, I think you should try to go to bed. You look like you still need to replenish a bit more energy.”

He glanced at her a bit startled, maybe not expecting her to bring that up all of a sudden.

“Pi pika…” Pikachu murmured from his perch on his trainer’s head.

That seemed to get Ash out of his stare and his shoulders slumped in surrender.

“I do feel a bit tired,” he relented with a yawn. “Let’s go to sleep, Pikachu.”

Pikachu answered with what sounded like an affirmation before jumping down to the balcony’s railing and to the floor, ready to get back inside.

Ash made to follow him but then paused and turned to Kidd. “Aren’t you going to sleep?”

“I will,” Kidd reassured him. “Just got a couple of things to finish up first.”

Ash nodded his understanding. “See you tomorrow then.”

“Sleep well,” she waved, watching them both retreat to their room, and once they were out of earshot, she sighed reaching a decision. “I might have to extend my stay a little longer.” she muttered.

It might have not been her place to step in, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t support Ash in some other ways.

Chapter Text

Being their first night sleeping outdoors after the events that had transpired at Cameran Castle, Brock had thought it best to set up camp early, having found a nice clearing over a hill where they could still see the Tree of Beginning in the horizon. Even from that far away, it was a sight to behold.

Dinner had come with small companionable chatter of menial topics. He always appreciated these moments of normalcy after overwhelming experiences, and knew the others needed them just as much as he felt he did. Especially considering May and Max hadn't experience the occasional life or death “let’s help a legendary” crisis that encompassed traveling with Ash as much as he himself had.

Guided by that trail of thought, Brock had decided to focus more on the two youngest members of their group, watchful for any sort of emotional distress they might be harboring. This didn't mean he wouldn't keep an eye on Ash himself, not after Kidd had hinted at the possibility of a hidden injury, but besides looking for physical discomfort, he neglected to pay attention to his actual behavior.

He later reprimanded himself for such a decision. Brock should have known by then, that just because they were better prepared for it, it didn't mean the things they went through wouldn't affect them. Somewhere along their way, he had forgotten those experiences were not supposed be normal even for them, and that having them happening on regular basis didn't make them any less traumatic.

Yet, it took for night to fall and everyone calling it a day, before Brock finally started noticing it...

“Pikapi?”

Pikachu’s quiet call for his trainer was still loud enough to pull Brock out of his blissful sleep. Taking a second to process the obvious tone of concern, he turned around finding it odd, only to be met with an empty sleeping bag. He sat up, wondering where Ash could have gone to, but it didn’t take him long to find Pikachu sprinting towards a lone tree slightly apart from camp. There he found his friend seemingly content to just sit with his back against the trunk; facing the expanded view of the Tree of Beginning and its surrounding valleys.

He watched as Pikachu stopped just beside Ash, before calling him one more time to get his attention.

“Hey, buddy,” Ash whispered, sending the little rodent a gentle smile.

Pikachu’s questioning look turned into a worried frown before he jumped on Ash's lap and curled up, letting the boy stroke his fur absently.

With a frown of his own, Brock took a quick look at the still sleeping forms of the two siblings and stood up, silently walking away to give Ash some needed company.

“Can't sleep?”

Slightly startled by the sound of his voice, Ash looked up to see Brock approaching. He stared without a word as the older boy got around the tree and sat right next to him, facing the horizon. As this happened, Pikachu's only reaction was a twitch of the ears before lazily opening his eyes, but as he saw who it was, he shook his sleepiness away and sat straight in full attention.

Ash seemed to hesitate for a moment before turning back to look at the faraway landscape — the moon providing enough light for the Tree of Beginning to shimmer slightly as if it was covered in pixie dust.

“I just… wanted to look at the tree a little bit longer,” he finally answered.

Brock nodded knowing it was only half the truth, but decided to let Ash have his way for the time being.

“I know what you mean. By this same time tomorrow, I don't think the tree will be visible anymore.”

Ash nodded once but didn't speak further.

Letting the silence drawl, Brock readjusted his position against the tree to something more comfortable and sighed tiredly. His mind then wandered, trying to figure out the reason of his friend’s sudden insomnia. There was definitely more to it than being swallowed up by the immune system of a magical rock formation in the shape of a giant tree. Scary as that had been, Ash never seemed to regard his own near death experiences with the importance and panic they deserved, and he wasn’t the type to let things deter him for long; much less if said things were already solved.

“Are you ok?”

Breaking out of his thoughts, Brock had to do a conscious effort to not snort at the question, and instead look back at Ash with an arched eyebrow.

“I thought I was the one that should be asking you that question.”

Ash blinked twice, looking surprised by Brock’s counter and he pulled back a little, turning away to the horizon again.

“I'm fine,” he murmured unconvincingly.

Brock was used to his friend's tendency of playing the tough card even when it was obvious he wasn't up for it, so he changed strategies.

“Well, I’m not sure I’m entirely ok,” the admission got him a concerned look, so he elaborated. “After spending some great quality time in the presence of such a beautiful and talented woman as Kidd, I'm not sure I can go on now that we have parted ways!”

Ash’s face slowly but surely transitioned from worry to neutral and ended up in a deadpan expression that betrayed no other emotions than annoyance if the slight tick in his left eye was anything to go by.

“I'm sure you'll live…” he finally said with an edge of sarcasm in his tone.

Brock paused his melodramatics and smiled as if he hadn't been crying in despair just seconds before.

“Yeah, and I can thank you for that,” he agreed.

“Huh?” Ash looked honestly confused at the statement.

Brock just shook his head at his friend's usual cluelessness and decided to enlighten him. “I still don't know the details, but Kidd did mention that you helped Lucario save Mew and the tree,” he reminded him.

Instead of the expected reaction of recognition, Ash looked suddenly mortified and Brock knew he had unintentionally hit the nail.

“I– I didn't–” he stuttered as if unsure before shaking his head in denial. “It was all Lucario. I wasn't… I couldn't really help him… I mean, he still…”

“Pikapi...”

He couldn't continue, but it wasn't needed. Brock’s brows went up in dawning realization.

“Where’s Lucario?” Max had asked.

“He… is back with his friend now,” Ash answered —his smile not quite reaching his eyes.

Brock never felt so strongly like bashing his head against a rock as he did at that second.

It was true that Ash had been acting like his usual cheerful self, if a bit tired, but that didn’t mean he had forgotten the emotions felt during their whole adventure. Of course his friend was grieving! And on top of that, he was dealing with a serious case of survivor’s guilt judging by what little Ash had just said. Even if his tiredness had helped to hide it a little, Brock should have detected it.

It couldn’t be helped to be distracted when in the presence of a beautiful girl, but even with that, Brock felt like he had failed in the friendship department. He knew very well the meaning of Ash’s words the moment he heard them, and yet, he never thought of what it meant for Ash himself. As someone who always did his best to help others and whose passion for pokémon went beyond anyone he’d ever met in all his travels, it was obvious that Lucario’s passing had affected Ash more than he was leading on. Brock should have known better.

He wished more than ever that he knew what had exactly happened, but he wasn't sure Ash was going to talk about it any time soon. Still, it wasn't healthy to keep bottling it all up, so Brock had to try…

“Come to think about it… Kidd mentioned that Mew got sick, but she didn’t explain why,” Brock prompted, causing Ash to wince.

They kept quiet for a few seconds before Ash relented. “I think it used too much power to bring us all back after the tree swallowed us…” he began; his sight lost in the distance. “Since it was too weak to keep the tree alive, everything started to disintegrate. But Mew told Lucario there was a way to help restore its health…”

“...Aura,” Brock guessed, remembering their conversation at the castle regarding Sir Aaron’s true story and sacrifice.

Ash’s unusual tiredness suddenly made a lot of sense, and he barely refrain from groaning at his lack of attention. All the clues were there, yet he had failed to perceive them.

Just that morning Ash had been so reluctant to wake, they had to leave later than planned. Kidd had been more than willing to wait, saying she could give them a ride to the cableway station. At the time Brock didn't make anything of it, just accepting her kindness with lovesick gratefulness. But now that he had a clear head, he thought Kidd seemed slightly worried when she offered, only to look considerably less troubled by the time they had a late lunch before they left. More specifically, by the time Ash finally showed up and started wolfing down his plate like he hadn't eaten in days. Knowing his food habits, Brock had scratched it as normal, if a bit hastier. But Kidd’s reaction to it had been unexpected. She had smiled brightly, looking downright approving of the lack of table manners displayed.

“When Kidd said you helped Lucario… she was talking about Aura, right?” Brock finally asked. “You and Lucario used Aura to heal Mew.”

Ash didn’t answer, but Brock easily interpreted his silence as an affirmative. It seemed obvious now after all the times Ash’s Aura ended up being mentioned in their conversations while in their journey to the tree.

He felt like reprimanding his friend for disregarding his own safety in a reckless act of heroism. But he knew that was not what Ash needed at the moment, so he ate all his frustration regarding his friend’s lack of self-preservation and kept quiet.

“I thought…” Ash started and paused as if reconsidering saying anything more, but he seemed to regain his resolve and looked at Brock. “I thought that… maybe if I helped Lucario… if we both combined our Aura to help Mew… we could both make it.”

Brock did his best to keep a straight face, even when Ash seemed about break, fearing that if he so much as twitch, Ash would clam up again.

“L-Lucario pushed me away at the last minute,” Ash explained, lowering his eyes towards Pikachu, who was snuzzling his hand in an attempt to bring his trainer some comfort. “I was so surprised by it that I couldn’t move… a-and…”

Silence came after that, but it wasn’t hard to see that Ash was blaming himself for Lucario’s fate. Brock straighten his back with a resolute frown.

“Ash...” his call came strong and steady and his hand went to rest on Ash shoulder, making him look back at him. “You know it’s not your fault, right? ...Lucario did it to save your life,” Ash looked like he wanted to argue the point, but didn’t have the words for it, so he decided to continue. “I can’t even begin to imagine how you must be feeling right now, but Lucario wished for you to live, so I believe the best you can do is honor that wish.”

Ash’s muscles tensed as realization hit him; his eyes going wide, glistening with unfallen tears.

“I-I…” hastily rubbing his face with one arm, Ash hunched his shoulders, pulling Pikachu into a tight embrace. To his credit, Pikachu didn’t even squeak at the abrupt strong hold, instead adjusting his position so he could hug his trainer back. “It’s just not fair…” Ash whispered; his voice cracking. “He had been trapped inside that staff for so long… and now he’ll… he’ll never...”

Only Ash would be so upset in someone else’s stead. Brock knew there was nothing else he could say that would make his friend feel better. He was right after all, it was unfair. And the fact that there was nothing they could do about it just made it worst. So he did the only other thing he could think of, and embraced his best friend’s tense shoulder in a one-arm hug, while pretending he hadn’t caught a glimpse of a tear flowing down Ash’s face. Brock had no words of comfort, but maybe this was all Ash really needed…